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Does the Four-Year College Model Still Make Sense?

Is it time for the three-year model?

March 27, 2019
 
 

In a recent conversation between New York Times opinion columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens, the latter, a former Wall Street Journal contributor, remarks: “I personally think the four-year college model is crazy — it should be three years, as it is in England. And that’s just for starters. We need to reinvent the model root-to-branch. That’s one of the reasons I’m against making college available to all: You are merely funneling more students into a system of increasingly dubious value.”

Based on my personal experience, I see nothing wrong with a three-year model.

I graduated in three years, thanks largely to Advanced Placement credits, and spent the third year researching and writing a senior thesis – on the writer Jean Toomer, which gave me the opportunity to interview many of his associates, including the pioneer in modernist and feminist art, Georgia O’Keeffe.

At that time, attending Oberlin College was about a thousand dollars a year more expensive than the University of Michigan – but I felt I owed it to my parents to eliminate a year of tuition, books, and room and board, cutting the cost of my undergraduate education by twenty-five percent.

Not for a moment have I felt that I missed anything.

Much of the world offers three-year undergraduate degrees in most fields. Why is that largely unimaginable in the United States?

It’s not that such options are totally unthinkable. During the formative years of American higher education, there was a great deal of disagreement about the appropriate length of a college education. Only gradually did colleges agree on a four-year norm. Today, NYU and Southern New Hampshire are among the institutions that offer three-year options.

Critics of any retreat from the four-year norm make several arguments.

  • College is as much about maturation as it is about learning, and most students need at least four years to make the transition from immature dependence to an independent maturity.

With many more students taking AP and Early College courses, and, following graduation, enrolling in Master’s and professional programs in record numbers, the time might be right to rethink the undergraduate experience, and replace the tripartite division of general education, a major, and electives with new options that might include more experiential learning, more co-curricular experiences, and more independent research and project-based learning opportunities.

  • A three-year curriculum deprives students of 8 to 10 courses, impoverishing their undergraduate education. 

There is nothing magical about a 40-course degree. Many elite liberal arts colleges currently offer many four-credit courses, and, on average, allow students to graduate after taking 32 courses.

  • A three-year course of study gives students too little time to identify a major and a career path.

With many more students pursuing post-bacc studies, a more interdisciplinary and less specialized undergraduate experience might make sense.

  • Three-year programs won’t work with certain majors and pre-professional programs, like Engineering.

A possible solution is to offer multiple tracks, with a lengthier track for those that impose special accreditation requirements.

  • Reducing the number of years towards a degree depends on whether we can improve high school preparation and ensure that high school courses are better aligned with college expectations.

This is, of course, precisely what Advanced Placement and Early College/Dual Degree programs are supposed to do. If many foundational courses shift to high school, this offers the possibility of reducing the number of years spent in college.

  • A three-year norm is unfair to part-time students.

Such students may need additional time, not simply because they are unable to complete 15 credit hours a semester, but because many have a range of learning needs that must be addressed. These needs must not be neglected. But it is unclear why a three-year program would be inequitable. A three-year option might encourage some part-time students to attend full-time. But no one would be required to finish in three years.

Of course, the single most powerful objection is that even when three-year programs exist, few students take advantage of this option.

There are, of course, a variety of ways to achieve the three-year goal:

  • Maintaining the 120-credit hour requirement, but incentivizing students to complete courses during the summer and during intersessions.
  • Creating 4-year BA-MA tracks, a fast-track to a graduate credential.
  • Substituting experiential learning opportunities and a capstone experience for some coursework.
  • Eliminating redundancies and creating integrated multi-disciplinary courses where possible.
  • Offering students the option, which is popular in Canada, of a 90-credit hour and a 120-hour degree. The additional 30 hours might include a thesis or other project.

One potential advantage of a three-year degree is that it would allow some of the nation’s most selective institutions to admit more students – students who are just as qualified as those that already enroll. And even if these institutions did not formally offer a three-year degree, students might be expected to complete one year off-campus, opening opportunities to enroll transfer students, among others.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

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