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The time has come for U.S. higher education to reduce the time to complete an undergraduate degree from four to three years. By a three-year degree, I do not mean accelerating the completion of a traditional four-year degree to three years, e.g., by transferring units in from high school (from Advanced Placement or dual-enrollment college courses), by taking the maximum number of units each semester and/or by taking courses during the summer. This kind of argument has been common in higher education publications, and many institutions, including mine, have advertised to prospective students and their families three-year completion plans.

Instead, an undergraduate degree should only require the completion of a major and general education (GE) requirements and not the additional “elective” units to attain 120 semester-system units (180 quarter-system), the typical minimum for a baccalaureate degree. In the United States, where the cost of higher education is expensive and only partially subsidized by federal and state governments, it is too costly a luxury to require that students complete more than a major and a program of general education.

Momentum for a true three-year degree of the kind I describe is growing. As Inside Higher Ed reported last month, a dozen colleges are developing pilot three-year degree programs, experimenting with different ways to cut the number of credits required, including by cutting electives. Accrediting agencies—including the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), which accredits my institution—have signaled their openness to the concept, though the obstacles to approval of a true three-year degree appear to remain significant.

WSCUC’s degree definitions state that the B.A. or B.S. normally represents 120 semester or 180 quarter units of study, “or its equivalent in depth and quality of learning experience.” WSCUC standards further maintain degree achievement should represent “more than simply an accumulation of courses or credits.” This point is immediately elaborated on by stating that the undergraduate program should be an “integrated course of study of sufficient breadth and depth to prepare them [students] for work, citizenship and life-long learning.” In other words, what is educationally required are a program of general education to create breadth and a major to create depth and some form of integration between them. Why require more?

Perhaps the two most exhaustive accounts of the history of higher education—Laurence R. Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University and Frederick Rudolph’s The American College and University: A History—operate from the assumption of an historically given four-year program of study and do not explain the original logic of a four-year curriculum. Both authors described the social, economic, political and institutional factors that have transformed the undergraduate curriculum since its establishment in the colonial colleges where the curriculum focused almost exclusively on the languages and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Both discussed pressures at various points to decrease time to degree: in describing the rise of the “acceleration movement” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rudolph recounted how University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper characterized the collegiate tradition as the “four-year fetish.” Veysey similarly noted that the rise of vocational training in the second half of the 1800s, such as in engineering and agriculture, put pressure on universities to reduce the length of the undergraduate curriculum to about two years, which prompted Harvard University president Charles Eliot to entertain the prospect of a three-year bachelor’s degree. Yet, the four-year program of undergraduate study continued.

To require more than the completion of a major and a program of general education might appear to be justified today on paternalistic grounds: traditional students need four years to mature from adolescence to adulthood, and it is in their intellectual interest to take more courses beyond their major and GE to become more educated. But this benevolent paternalism is problematic. In response to the former justification, the student demographic has changed where there are now many nontraditional-aged students at colleges and universities. Moreover, let employers and graduate or professional programs decide whether students graduating in three years have the skills and maturity to do their jobs or begin professional study. And even if graduating students need more time to mature, why should they remain in college rather than work or engage in other educationally enriching endeavors before going to professional school?

Regarding the latter justification, it might be intellectually edifying for students to complete more courses as a part of their degree, but there is always more content to which students can be exposed. Why not let them choose to take more courses beyond the major and GE for their own enrichment? Moreover, a well-delivered major and program of GE should be ample for the intellectual development of students.

There would be many benefits for a bona fide three-year degree that would outweigh any disadvantages:

  • The most significant would be to lower the cost to attend higher education, which is prohibitory for many students and families.
  • Students would likely be less daunted to attend college or university knowing that it was only a three-year commitment. In fact, if they took courses during the summer, they could finish in less than three years.
  • Students would likely take their courses more seriously knowing that they only have three years to establish a good academic record rather than four.
  • Students would likely be more motivated to figure out early in their education what they will do after they graduate since there would only be a few years to do so.

A three-year degree could also motivate faculty to improve the curriculum. The numbers of courses or units required for many majors are too inflated. Too often, major curricula are designed primarily for continuing graduate study in the discipline and not for the kinds of knowledge and skills valued by employers. There is always more content to which students can be exposed in any major, but faculty need to ask how much content is essential to develop the skills and ways of thinking in a discipline.

Of course, students who need more time to find a major or who want to complete a second major or a minor or who want to take more courses for their intellectual development can do so. But for those who complete their major and GE, that should be enough to enter the next stage of their lives.

Lou Matz is a professor of philosophy at the University of the Pacific.

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