A Low-Tech Way to Lower Costs: Steve Trachtenberg’s Idea

“It makes … no sense to subordinate teaching to planting, cultivating, and harvesting when so few of us work on farms or live by agriculture … we do not need the summer off.” So spoke President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg of George Washington University in remarks to his faculty on November 11, 2002.

President Trachtenberg was not the first, nor will he be the last, to propose pushing universities to a real year-round calendar. Instead of two 14- to 15- week semesters, have three. Students, if they wish, could study hard and graduate in three years, saving considerable amounts (even if per-semester tuition charges remained unchanged) and gain one more year in the labor force. That option could become more appealing if we rationalized federal student financial assistance.  With year-round schooling, buildings and equipment that lie idle for vast periods could be utilized far more efficiently, in the long run reducing capital-expenditure outlays (which many in the university community think are somehow provided by God, not requiring annual budgeting).

Indeed, a strong argument can be made that the Middle Ages ended when farmers abandoned the medieval system of letting land lie fallow at least one year in three (the three field system), and moved to constant cultivation, using in this case some new crops, new techniques, and alternative forms of land tenure. Agriculture benefited by abandoning the practice of letting land lie fallow after 1400, so wouldn’t universities benefit from stopping letting buildings lie fallow after 2011?

The faculty could teach two semesters annually as at present, still spending about 40 percent of the year not formally performing academic duties—or they could teach more and earn considerably more than at present, albeit at the expense of some leisure time and probably some time on research (some of which is of dubious value anyhow).

The savings to the university could allow it to educate more students with any given amount of resources. Trachtenberg estimated that, at GW, the school could easily add 1,000 students, but still reduce crowding on campus, alleviate housing pressures, etc. Arguably, the savings could allow some modest tuition reductions per semester, so even students attending school for only two semesters annually could still save a little money.

This sure sounds like win-win to me. Greater efficiency, lower costs to students, more teaching and compensation opportunities for faculty. Yet the faculty at GW studied, debated, stalled, and ultimately killed the idea. Why? People want their vacation in June, July and August (often to coincide with that of their children, a problem that could be alleviated by doing the same thing at the K-12 level). Some faculty, frankly, don’t want to work too hard. Students also have gotten used to working typically less than 900 hours (if time-use survey data are accurate) annually on academics (half as much as their parent work at their full-time jobs), and this scheme sounds too much like working in the Real World—or at least having vacations when the weather is not so nice.

Recently, however, the three-year degree is getting some renewed attention. It can be done by redefining downward the work required for a bachelor’s degree—sort of the academic equivalent of currency devaluation (which some argue European universities have done). Or, it could be achieved by adopting a scheme similar to the Trachtenberg trimester proposal.

Aside from the issue of improving facility and personnel utilization, I think we might study the academic and potential vocational gains associated with, say, the fourth year of college relative to the third one. Are there diminishing returns to learning as there is to almost everything else in life, from eating or making love to farming land? Of course, university faculty write well over 1,000 papers annually on Shakespeare, most of which are read by miniscule numbers of people, but probably less than one-tenth of 1 percent that amount on papers on issue of diminishing returns to learning. Why? Is it possible that the answer, in large part, is that the results of such research might not be too favorable to faculty members who either want job security or want to teach their favorite obscure senior course (that might be eliminated)?

A state that gives its universities $2,000 per semester for each undergraduate (a dumb but common way of distributing subsidies) might alter their formula to give schools only $1,500 for academic terms predominantly occurring in the months of September through May, and $3,000 per student attending in a term that is predominantly in June, July, or August. Schools might then offer lower tuition charges for the summer trimester. There are other ways to achieve the Trachtenberg idea, but, however done, it deserves greater attention.

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