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3-Year Degrees? Not So Fast

June 3, 2010

As hot higher education ideas go, the three-year bachelor's degree continues to get a lot of attention and praise. Most recently, an op-ed in The New York Times made the case for three years of undergraduate study. As more colleges have announced new three-year options, students haven't flooded the programs, but the idea is increasingly cited as one that could be part of the solution to a range of problems, including rising college costs and low degree attainment for those whose parents didn't go to college.

Some higher education leaders have quietly expressed skepticism -- but today, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities is releasing a much more pointed critique of the idea.

While three-year programs and proposals vary, the basic idea is that students save time and money by eliminating a year of college -- whether by earning more credits through Advanced Placement or dual credit programs while they are in high school, taking more courses more quickly while in college, taking courses every summer, or through some combination.

Even in three-year options where students are charged tuition by the credit, savings are projected because students don’t face four years of room and board charges. Some colleges are offering discounted tuition in three-year programs as well, and some policy makers and philanthropists are arguing that colleges might also reduce the number of required credits -- to make it easier for more students to pursue this option.

But in her statement, Carol Geary Schneider, president of AAC&U, takes issue with the idea, for both practical and philosophical reasons.

From a practical perspective, Schneider writes that the proposals simply aren’t realistic when so many students now fail to graduate college in even four years.

“Make no mistake, we believe that colleges and universities should be doing everything they can to move students through their degree programs as efficiently and effectively as possible,” she writes. But only 27 percent of students at public institutions and 48 percent at private institutions finish in four years. It would make much more sense, she writes, to focus on increasing those percentages.

But beyond arguments about feasibility, Schneider suggests that the idea of cutting the time spent in college or the credits required for a degree clashes with the demands of employers and others for a better-educated college graduate, not just a more speedily-educated college graduate.

“We know, for instance, that success in today’s workplace requires achievement in at least six new areas of knowledge and skill development, which have been added to the already ambitious learning portfolio required in earlier eras,” writes Schneider. Citing surveys by AAC&U and others, she says these new areas are (1) global knowledge and competence, (2) intercultural knowledge and skills, (3) creativity and innovation, (4) teamwork and problem-solving skills in diverse settings, (5) information literacy and fluency, and (6) ethical reasoning and decision making.

“None of these were central to the expected curriculum a generation ago; today, all of them are essential,” she writes.

Further, she notes the value that employers and others place on a range of educational experiences that go beyond amassing credits. “Employers are urging colleges and universities to provide students with many more opportunities to apply their knowledge in real-world settings through internships, community-based research, and senior integrative and comprehensive projects.”

An emphasis on getting students through in three years will discourage such learning opportunities, she writes, and will not necessarily produce a better graduate. In this context, she calls the recent flurry of endorsements for three-year degrees “more damaging than helpful.”

Schneider doesn’t argue that three-year degrees are uniformly a bad idea. She notes that most colleges already have the option for those who enter college with significant academic credits and that finishing in three years may well make sense for “a few very highly motivated, exceptionally well-prepared students.”

What she argues against is viewing the three-year option as “a panacea” when it doesn’t do anything about serious underlying problems in higher education, such as the underpreparedness of entering students and the severe budget cuts that are forcing many colleges to turn away students.

Asked why she was releasing this statement, Schneider said via e-mail: "I decided to release this statement because, in this economy, half-baked ideas for shrinking the degree are getting far more attention than they deserve. I worry that deceptively simple ideas will actually be adopted, with disastrous results for the quality of college learning and American capability. Someone needs to point out the complexities in the three-year degree discussion, and I decided to do it."

But at least one proponent of the three-year degree, Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, said he was not moved by the statement. "The leadership of AAC&U has made sustaining the time to degree more important than seeking more timely and efficient means for achieving a college education," said Zemsky, whose 2009 book, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education (Rutgers University Press), heralded the three-year degree as one possible "dislodging event" that could prod meaningful change in higher education.

"I suspect that what particularly worries the AAC&U is that, were a three-year baccalaureate to become the norm, what would be cut from the curriculum are the general education requirements which undergird liberal arts enrollments." He noted that the association has in the past criticized an emphasis on credits and time to degree as opposed to quality.

Changes in the curriculum, spurred by a three-year model, could be positive, he said. "I have argued before that moving to a three-year curriculum will break the logjam that currently holds meaningful reform hostage," he said. "As faculty we will have to rethink what we do. We will have to prune and simplify the curriculum. We will have to re-evaluate when and with what expected outcomes we use technology. Probably the first change we would make would substitute pathways of sequenced courses for the smorgasbord approach that twice and sometimes three times a year turns the course-registration process into a spot market in which convenience and the absence of tough course requirements too often shape the educational experiences students choose."

 

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