Faster, Cheaper, Better: It’s the Curriculum, Stupid!

By John L. Lahey

During my 40-plus years working in higher education I have witnessed a remarkable transformation in a wide range of industries—telecommunications, computing, transportation, media, publishing, manufacturing and retailing, to name a few. In almost every case these transformations have resulted in an improved product and/or service that is more responsive to consumer needs, more efficient and effectively produced, and offered at lower and lower cost to the consumer. The most obvious exception to all of these industry transformations is higher education.

Every year for the past 10 years I’ve made it a point to attend a futuristic conference in Silicon Valley having nothing to do with higher education. I was more interested in learning how high-tech Silicon Valley entrepreneurs viewed the world and the culture that attracted and produced these innovators and their startup companies. I was truly amazed at the extent to which these Silicon Valley entrepreneurs believed they were just one algorithm away from radically changing a long-established industry, its product or services, or creating an entirely new one. The mantra for these entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley generally is: faster, cheaper, better.

Using these same standards of faster, cheaper, better, let’s apply them to higher education and the changes that it has witnessed over my 50-plus years dating back to 1964. For starters: The bachelor’s degree that I earned in 1968 took me 120 credit hours, eight semesters, and four years to achieve. The per-credit-hour charge back then was $21. That same degree today costs approximately $1,200 per credit (both based on private university tuition costs). With respect to “better,” I’m willing to accept that today’s undergraduate education is at least as good as it was when I was a student, although frankly I’m hard-pressed to say that it is significantly better. And with respect to “faster,” the same bachelor’s degree that I earned in 1968 still today takes 120 credit hours, eight semesters, and four years to complete.

In short, the degrees that higher education awards today versus 50 years ago are neither faster nor better and certainly not cheaper. Earning a degree today costs about 57 times more than what it did five decades ago. All of which leads me to an opportunity for efficiency which has largely been overlooked in higher education, namely the curriculum. And the beauty of this opportunity is that it offers the best if not the only hope for higher education to satisfy all three of the Silicon Valley goals of faster, cheaper and better.

Seven years ago, at my urging, Quinnipiac University developed a number of accelerated dual-degree bachelor’s/master’s programs (originally called 3-plus-1 programs). The first one we developed was a bachelor’s in business combined with an MBA. The second was a bachelor’s in communications combined with a master’s degree in communications/journalism. These two combined offerings already existed at Quinnipiac as separate degree programs that required five years or 10 semesters to complete at the cost of five years or 10 semesters of tuition.

Our newly developed accelerated dual-degree programs offered these same two degrees in four years or eight semesters at a cost of four years or eight semesters of tuition. This accelerated program reduced by one full year both the time of completion and the cost of tuition yielding a savings or cost reduction of 20% or approximately $40,000. In addition, shortening the time of completion by one year allowed the graduates of these programs to enter the workforce one year earlier, offsetting the cost even further depending on the salary earned that first year after graduation. For example, a net income from a first-year take-home salary of $60,000 combined with $40,000 in reduced tuition effectively reduces the cost of dual degrees by 50% from $200,000 for the traditional five years of tuition to $100,000 with four years of tuition payments of $160,000 reduced to $100,000 by earning $60,000 net income in the fifth year.

These accelerated dual-degree programs have been expanded to other schools and colleges at Quinnipiac and now include additional 3-plus-1 programs, as well as 3-plus-2 programs and 3-plus-3 programs for dual degrees that traditionally required six or seven years to complete at a cost of six or seven years of tuition.

The common thread for all of these dual-degree programs is that they shorten the traditional amount of time required by one year, reduce the cost of the dual degrees by one year’s tuition and allow the graduate to enter the workforce one year earlier, earning an extra year’s salary. The popularity of these programs has grown such that over 20% of the Quinnipiac freshmen entering in the fall of 2018 were enrolled in one of these dual-degree programs.

The key element in the success of these programs both academically and financially is the curriculum and specifically the elimination of duplication within the curriculum for a bachelor’s and a master’s in the same program, such as business or communication. Most people believe the cost of higher education has gone up dramatically in large part because we are a personnel intensive industry. But I submit that the reason we need so many faculty and other personnel is because the curriculum has expanded and expanded over the years with little effort to eliminate unnecessary duplication of content among many bachelor’s degrees and their corresponding graduate degrees.

To end on a positive note: If we do indeed expand our focus on the curricula and eliminate unnecessary duplication within degree programs, we will not only lower the cost of higher education, but unlike with traditional cost reduction efforts, we will not compromise quality. Reasonable class sizes and full-time faculty-to-student ratios can be maintained for optimal learning. At the same time, more efficient curricula will more effectively engage and challenge today’s students who are far ahead of educators in their desire for all things faster, cheaper, better.

John L. Lahey is president emeritus and professor of logic and philosophy at Quinnipiac University, located in Hamden and North Haven, Connecticut. He served as president from 1987 to 2018.


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