Wesleyan University offers a three-year bachelor's degree

The elite -- and expensive -- university looks to give students a break, earning a top degree in less time.

Kai Ryssdal: There was an item in the Washington Post last week that piqued our interest. The president of an elite private college in Connecticut said he's looking for ways to make school cheaper and let students graduate in less time.

The school is Wesleyan University. The president, Michael Roth, is also an alum. Back in the day, he got through in three years to save his parents some money. And with tuition where it is now, two fewer semesters can mean even bigger savings.

Michael Roth, good to have you with us.

Michael Roth: Nice to be here.

Ryssdal: How's this going to work? Do you just double up on courses and work in the summertime?

Roth: No, we don't actually have to double up on courses at all. If a student enters with two AP credits and does some work in the summertime, students won't have to take an overload at all during their three years at Wesleyan.

Ryssdal: But they'll have to do a little bit extra, right?

Roth: Well the summer work is extra, and not everybody has APs upon coming in. But if they do the intensive summer sessions and have some AP credit, they could actually just take the, in our case, four courses a semester. Many of our students already take five courses a semester from time to time, and they'd be free to do that too.

Ryssdal: One of the other things in this post that struck us was that you're going to link tuition increases to inflation and not the somewhat-greater-than-inflation increases that higher education seems to have become used to.

Roth: Yes.

Ryssdal: How are you going to do that? Are you going to dip in into the endowment? I mean, you know, stuff is expensive.

Roth: Yes, it is expensive. But I think that we have a problem in higher education. At Wesleyan, a lot of students are on financial aid, and we can't keep raising tuition for those folks. So I've said to the board that we should raise tuition not as high as we can because so many people want to get in, but as much as we have to in order to keep pace with inflation. And in order to do that, we'll have to cut costs -- and we have done that in the last few years, without affecting the academic core of the institution.

Ryssdal: One of the other things you said down in the fifth, sixth paragraph or so is that in the last year or so, you have come to realize that the current business model of higher education, of ever-increasing tuition and higher fees, is unsustainable. And with all respect, I have to ask: Only in the last year? Where have you been?

Roth: Well it's a good question. A lot of people have said over the last many years that the increases are out of control. At Wesleyan, we have 10,000 applications for a class of 745 students. And many of those applicants are demanding the amenities that families have come to expect in higher ed. What we've said is we're going to start trimming away the inessential parts of our operation to focus on those things that prepare students most for what comes after the university. In my view, it would great for Wesleyan to educate more students over more years. We'll replace the students who graduate early with other students. And if we can educate more people in a more economical fashion, well, I think we're doing our job.

Ryssdal: Michael Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. Thanks very much for your time, sir.

Roth: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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