Shortening High School to Three Years

The state of Indiana has just launched a new program, the brainchild of the state’s Republican governor Mitch Daniels, that will allow high school students to skip their senior year and move straight to college after their junior year if they have completed the core requirements. The money the state would have spent to help subsidize a fourth year of high school–from $6,000 to $8,000 per student, depending on the school district–will instead go directly to the students in the form of college scholarships.

This is good news for the critics of the flaccid secondary education system that prevails in many U.S. public school districts, a system that allows students to finish all their core courses during their junior year. Senior year then becomes the time of the prom, lording it around campus, and “senioritis”: blowing off classes because the seniors’ transcripts are already in the hands of the colleges where they have applied. Nonetheless, the Daniels plan–similar to early-graduation incentives in force in Idaho and being urged in Kentucky–is not universally popular. Many educators, as well as high school students themselves, argue that students shouldn’t be deprived of, well, the fun and prestige of being a senior. (The high schools have an additional interest in not losing the funding that disappears when students choose early college.) “Just because the twelfth grade may not be fully utilized to its potential by many students doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done away with,” Phillip Lovell of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based education-funding advocacy group, told a team of journalists from the Indianapolis Star and the Hechinger education report. High school students told the reporters that they liked the idea of spending twelfth grade taking art classes, playing on athletic teams, and otherwise enjoying themselves. Senior year “is your best year,” one of them said.
 
What is interesting about the negative reaction to three-year high school is that it mirrors the negative reaction to three-year college, an option at several liberal arts colleges around the country that can reduce costs substantially and move students more quickly into professional schools or careers. One institution, Waldorf College in Iowa, began phasing out its three-year program in 2009 because, as an Associated Press reporter wrote, “Most students wanted the full four-year experience–academically, socially, athletically.” A Waldorf spokeswoman explained, “What we’re finding they’re saying is, ‘Why did I want to grow up so fast?'”

This raises the question: Is college—or high school—really supposed to be about having an "experience"? What about acquiring an education? Or, in this era of a straitened economy and ever-escalating tuition, what about saving one's parents some money and keeping one's debt load manageable by seizing on the scholarship funds generated by accelerated high school or the reduced costs generated by squeezing college into three years? High school educators and policymakers have long known that senior year at many public schools is often "a lost opportunity: a year where we have significant drift and disconnection," as the National Commission on the High School Senior Year concluded in a 2001 report. The typical solution has been to encourage seniors to take AP classes, or for high schools to offer dual-enrollment programs in conjunction with community colleges enable high school students to gain credits toward or even earn an associate degree. But why not simply let them shorten high school altogether? According to the Indianapolis Star/Hechinger story, the National Center on Education and the Economy and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will sponsor a program this fall in eight states that lets students finish high school in two years and enroll directly in community college if they pass several tests.

Similarly, there seems to be little to lose and much to gain from encouraging young people to move through college quickly. Three-year programs require exactly the same number of credit-hours as four-year programs, so students don't have to pass up that French literature elective while pursuing an engineering degree. They simply have to take an extra course or two each semester. That shouldn't be too difficult .in a college scene where, if Richard Arun and Josipa Roksa, writing in Academically Adrift, are correct, full-time students spend less than six hours a week on average studying anyway.  
 
Educators typically counter that it is unrealistic to expect three-year college programs to attract many takers. According to the College Board, only 37 percent of students manage to graduate in the standard four years, and only half graduate in six years or fewer. This is partly because many of them are poorly prepared for college when they enroll (about one-third of entering college freshman require remedial courses before they are ready to embark on college-level work). But it also may be partly because they have bought into the prevailing idea, peddled by their elders who ought to know better, that education is supposed to be an "experience"—going to the prom, hanging with one's buddies, getting blasted on Saturday night—instead of an opportunity to learn. Or that education and "growing up" are antithetical. Three-year high school and college programs aren't just money-savers for individuals, parents, and taxpayers; they also provide opportunities for young people to turn themselves into mature adults.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

2 thoughts on “Shortening High School to Three Years

  1. I would suspect the 3-year HS plan would appeal primarily to highly motivated students, who know they want to be doctors, medical researchers, other hard sciences. So maybe a regional plan would work best. We should try to increase the supply of doctors and medical researchers to lower costs and to make our medical progress an export to enhance our status in the world.
    College should be shorter, too, for such students.
    Save the money, increase the medical practitionera and make the world a more peaceful place by spreading our health and wellnexx.

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