The one thing that everyone who has studied college education can agree on is that students learn more when they work in groups. Yet colleges don’t build infrastructure to support this. A university will spend hundreds of $millions on dormitories, i.e., places for students to drink beer and sleep together. Why is there is no budget for cubicle farms where students in the same major could do their homework together, asking for help from the person at the next desk and, if necessary, raising their hands for help from roving teaching assistants?
Another paradox of college life is the brevity of the calendar. In a country where less than 3 percent of the population works on the farm, we’ve preserved a long summer break so that Junior can go home and help bring in the harvest. The result is that parents, already reeling from the cost of 4 years of tuition, also have to figure out how they’re going to support Junior during Winter Break ski trips, Spring Break beach trips, and the long summer break in an economy where jobs are scarce.
Would it not make more sense for colleges to get out of the housing business and into the group-work business? Let students come to campus at 9:00 am and stay until 9:00 pm, working with other students. Then let them sleep at night wherever they want to. If a college has infinite money, there’s nothing wrong with building dorms but if funds are scarce why not spend it on things that are directly relevant for learning?
Would it not make more sense for colleges to be in session for 45-50 weeks per year? A student would be able to get a bachelor’s degree in 2.5 years and join the workforce, i.e., get off the parental payroll.
The answer to these apparently obvious questions seems to be “it depends”. Mostly it depends on how rich the students’ parents are. At a school for the ruling class, e.g., Harvard or Yale, it really doesn’t matter how effective the pedagogy is. If Biff doesn’t learn calculus his daddy can still buy him a seat in Congress. What Biff really needs to do is meet other members of the ruling class even if they are from different majors The dormitory is the ideal environment for this mixing.
Similarly a school targeted to children of the ruling class need not worry about the parents’ ability to support Muffy for 4 years. Much more important is that Muffy have plenty of time off to take the Grand Tour of Europe, hop the family fractional jet for the December trip to St. Barts, spend a summer interning in Cousin (Senator) Bob’s office.
A suboptimality arises when schools whose parents aren’t rich ape the policies of the traditional schools, all of which were established in an age when only the privileged went to college.
Prediction: the coming decades will see the rise of new colleges with more intensive academic programs, more shared workspaces for undergraduates, and no dorms.