The pessimistic tone about Social Security, aging population, government deficits, taxes, the dollar, ways to compete with hundreds of millions of hard-working Chinese and Indian youngsters, assumes that there isn’t much to be optimistic about the United States when it comes to the labor force. Solutions include increasing the age of retirement and taxes, diminishing Social Security benefits, or attracting qualified immigrants. There is another solution, however.
What if instead of spending 16 years of schooling (including college), one could do so in 15 years? Or, in the case of community colleges, get to the finish line in 13 rather than 14 years? In Israel, undergraduate studies take three years and the work force there is amongst the most highly skilled in the world.
There are about 16 million college students in the United States. Assume that from now on, four million join the labor force a year earlier. Each subsequent generation could then stay one year longer working, making greater contributions to America’s economy.
The indirect impacts may be as significant. Finishing one’s studies a year earlier brings about greater discipline. If youngsters feel they made a bad education choice, they have one more year to correct the mistake. And if toward middle age, they become bored, they have a year gained to invest in a transition, and correct their mistake.
Israeli undergraduates’ stellar performance suggests that completing studies in three years does not mean less education. It is true that Israeli youngsters arrive at the university two to three years older relative to their western counterparts because of two years’ service in the army (for girls), and three years (for boys). This provides maturity and valuable experience a classroom can’t provide.
The implication then for American youngsters is to gain practical experience earlier on, rather than study additional years. It is not accidental that Israel has the largest concentration of high-tech firms outside Silicon Valley, and, with a population of six million, has the third largest number of companies listed on NASDAQ, after the United States and Canada. Working under intense pressure prepares one to see with whom one gets along, who is a leader, who works well under pressure and who does not. It is not surprising that teams shaped in the Israeli military founded many of the high-tech companies.
The fact is that U.S. students are bored. Many spend hours watching TV and playing video games instead of focusing on more productive endeavors. Meanwhile, the level of mathematics, reading, and writing proficiency has been declining.
This brings us to execution: What do high schools and colleges have to do to give students the options to spend a year less “delaying real life,” as a popular book title among students puts it?
The onus then is on colleges to do the serious restructuring, without sacrificing the quality of learning. To illustrate, consider this: in 2005, accounting seems to be among undergraduates’ top choices. But do students specializing in accounting really have to spend four years as “business undergraduates”?
Accounting is a trade that one learns by practicing, rather than passing multiple choice exams. Until the 1960s one could become an accountant or a lawyer by working, rather than studying the trade at universities. What does it mean to take courses with titles such as “management,” “strategy,” “organizational behavior,” and “psychology of organizations”? Further, the classes are taught by lecturers who, more often than not, have no experience in ever managing, executing, financing, or marketing anything.
Imagine if lecturers in medical schools never operated, but wrote 100 papers on “optimizing procedures in operation rooms” instead. The same pattern holds true for most undergraduate studies: they can be offered in three years with positive outcomes. Israel’s experience, where youngsters spend a year less at university, and spend more time in a disciplined, workforce-type environment demonstrates this.
Do universities have an incentive to restructure along the above lines? No. But pressures are coming from outside and many directions. Indian and Chinese youngsters are ambitious and hard working. The U.S. middle class is squeezed with high college tuition rates, while often questioning the curriculum.
Education is now ripe for reform in the United States. Although restructuring of education may seem difficult to fathom in the eyes of many Americans who are used to the status quo, experience in other countries demonstrates that sometimes, less education leads to more positive benefits for society.
Cato adjunct scholar Reuven Brenner lectures at McGill University’s Faculty of Management, and is partner at Match Strategic Partners. The article draws on his last book, The Force of Finance: Triumph of the Capital Markets.