Vertigo Years

The problems facing higher education won't be fixed by three-year programs, but educational values will be lost, write William G. Durden and Neil B. Weissman.

August 17, 2009

"All of you to whom furious work is dear, and whatever is fast, new, and strange -- you find it hard to bear yourselves; your industry is to escape and the will to forget yourselves. If you believed more in life you would fling yourselves less to the moment. But you do not have content enough in yourselves for waiting -- and not even for idleness."

--Friedrich Nietzsche

Reducing the price of higher education by offering a three-year undergraduate degree for all students embarrassingly announces to the world that in America finance and clever marketing trump learning. Lopping off one quarter of the current norm for bachelor's degrees seems a compelling way to achieve the big savings we all long for, particularly when coupled with imaginings that college education is inefficient and readily compacted. Higher ed is easy prey to such imaginings because it deals often with what is not immediately perceived and readily measured. Its subject is the mind and the maturing young person. Its playing field is the duration of time.

It may be that we can no longer afford the four-year standard for an undergraduate education. If economic realities push against our current model, so be it. But before we fast forward college in the name of affordability, let's at least be honest about what is being lost. Three is usually not more than or equal to four. Not all results -- especially in education, where "widgets" are not the product -- are available at lower price and the same quality. Perhaps we can "get undergraduates through" in three years. However, what we may have to alter to achieve that end might severely compromise what we hope to accomplish for our students, particularly in areas vital to a thriving 21st century democracy and economy.

Consider the following areas of concern. Most involve potential dilution of those very educational goals deemed by the marketplace to be critical competencies to a global workforce and by the public to be essential to American democracy.

Global perspective. American higher education has traditionally done a poor job providing students with global perspective, despite the clear importance of globalization for our future. True, more Americans are studying abroad than in the past, but for shorter periods -- this despite convincing evidence that stays of up to an academic year yield markedly superior results. A three-year degree program -- with the "no frills" philosophy that often supports it -- is likely to reduce space for global education across the curriculum; it certainly will constrain study abroad. Not to mention the more specialized but important issue of impact on instruction in critically needed but demanding languages such as Arabic or Chinese.

Interdisciplinarity. The movement in higher education has been steadily toward more interdisciplinary work, and for multiple, good reasons. This is where much of the action is in research and discovery. Think, for example, of such fields as biochemistry, neuroscience, bioinformatics, or environmental studies. More generally, most of the problems we currently face are interdisciplinary in nature (think, for instance, of what one needs to know to address the issue of climate change seriously). Both in the workplace and as citizens the ability to "connect the dots" by drawing insights from multiple fields is becoming ever more essential. As a consequence, we now add "synthesis" to traditional demands for "breadth" and "depth" as a key dimension of undergraduate education. A shortened degree can limit our capacity for interdisciplinary programming, whether in majors or general education.

Complexity. As the foregoing indicates, academic fields -- and the world at large -- are becoming more complex, not less. Look, for example, at what it now requires to be a biologist as compared to 20 (or even 10) years ago. New information, new methods (often borrowed from other fields as in bioinformatics), and new instrumentation have opened doors both to more knowledge and more questions to answer, not fewer. This is not only a matter of mastering an academic discipline but of expanding into contemporary issues from health care to financial markets. We need more thinking and students knowing with some certainty about the complexity of issues, not less.

Choice. Growing complexity has meant that academic majors have become both fuller and more hierarchical (i.e., more courses with more prerequisites). Pushing hierarchical majors back from four years to three will inevitably up the pressure on students to decide on a major immediately, and significantly constrain the possibility of a change in direction. Early specialization is the European model, but should it become ours? Will it maintain America's edge of advancing students and a workforce who are engaged, entrepreneurial and creative in part because they have taken the time to find out who they are and remained open to new possibilities? This question has particularly salience as the new, 21st century economy demands ever more flexibility.

Creativity. Much of the foregoing focuses on an arena in which Americans, and American students, have been historically distinguished -- creativity. Can this quality thrive in a "hurry up," "let's get it done" version of higher education? This goal is certainly more difficult to achieve in a course of study that is predicated upon early specialization and in which combining depth with experience in a variety of fields is minimized?

Democracy. It is true that we as a nation must educate for the skills/abilities that fuel our economy, and at reasonable cost. But we educate for the habits of mind and action that fuel a democracy as well. Educating for democracy as opposed to mere academic coursework is a global differentiator of American higher education. Three-year compacting may very well push out opportunity for the broader tools and vision we need for citizenship to unfold over time in a residential setting -- especially among students who are generally the youngest to begin university in the industrialized world. Let us remember that many of the skills of organization and association that since Tocqueville have been identified as guarantors of American civil society are developed in co- and extra-curricular activities that characterize current residential education. These, too, are potential victims of degree acceleration.

Meaning. When advocates of a shorter degree call for "no frills" and an end to "waste," likely targets for substantial cutbacks are the humanities and arts. The press for more practical undergraduate degree programs, intensified by global economic competition, has already reduced enrollment in these fields. Is it worthwhile to have a system in which speculation on what it means to be human and exposure to the range of human creativity and expression in the arts are increasingly pushed aside? Our students already do too little of this.

Technology. New online technology is often offered up as the elixir for students of any age that shortens time and improves quality by simultaneously accelerating and enhancing instruction. But this is far from proven. The emerging reality may be that technology works best among younger students when combined with more traditional, faculty-contact based approaches rather than as a substitute. Moreover, mastery of many technological innovations -- whether general skills of computing or more specialized skills associated with new instrumentation and techniques, especially in the sciences -- itself places time pressures on the undergraduate degree. Not to mention that the substantial costs of developing and applying effective technology in instruction work against promised cost savings through degree acceleration.

It is worth noting that at many institutions the door is already open to a three-year degree. Students can deploy credits earned in high school through Advanced Placement, summer school, and/or a few semesters with a course overload to reduce their time to a bachelor's degree to three or quite easily three and a half years. How many do? Very few. Advocates of degree acceleration would claim, with some reason, that we do not advertise the fast track and have built the system to discourage it.

They might also argue, again with cause, that students who might otherwise finish in three years fear competition from peers who have taken longer to mature, hone their abilities, and develop resumes full of internships, study abroad and senior research experience. But could it also be that many students are in no rush because they sense some of the points made above? Perhaps they have an inkling that four years of study and maturation prepare them better for graduate work, career, and life?

Supporters of the three-year degree often cite the example of Europe as justification for reducing our time in undergraduate study. Indeed, as part of the Bologna Declaration, member countries are required to move by 2010 to a five-year bachelor's-master's degree sequence. Many nations are choosing the 3+2 option. Yet the comparison of the two systems of higher education is highly misleading, most obviously because conditions in Europe are quite different from conditions in America.

Take Germany as an example -- a country that has chosen the 3+2 option. There, high school students prepare for the university with a rigorous liberal arts and science course of study until the age of 19. This study is so demanding that numerous colleges and universities in the United States award a full year of college credit for the completion of the Abitur -- the German high school degree. In essence, the German secondary school experience de facto makes for a four-year degree. Moreover, German men are required by law to complete a period of either military or civil service and thus will begin undergraduate study generally at 20 and finish at 23 or 24.

Certain fields of study, however, have a limited number of seats for study available in any given year ("Numerus Clausus") and therefore, students have to wait a year or more additionally to begin university. The American three-year proposal would have our students completing college at 20 or 21. The age difference is striking -- and not to our advantage. Moreover, at present only 35 percent of German school students proceed to university study versus approximately 65 percent in the United States. Clearly Germany is subjecting a far more uniformly well-prepared and limited number of students to the "three-year" baccalaureate than would be subject to it in the United States. The comparison of the two nations for advocacy of the three-year degree simply breaks down on several fronts.

Importantly, many European professors, students and educational agencies are awakening to negative outcomes of the three-year degree. For example, increasingly German students are forgoing their former practice of study abroad in order to finish on time their tightly prescribed three-year program. The situation has become so alarming that the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is apparently advocating a four-year undergraduate degree program to accommodate a year of study abroad. Students and professors are also discovering that the three-year course of study is so regimented that there is little to no time to engage in studies across disciplines or to reflect upon what has been learned.

Returning to America and looking at our system as a whole, the key numbers may not be four and three. As the Obama administration has clearly discovered, roughly one third of our students are enrolled in community college, and here the issue is improving the quality of two years. Even in regard to four-year institutions, the real challenge may be increasing the number of students who complete on time. Our focus ought to be on the five, six or more years it often takes to complete. For example, more than 60 percent of students with Advanced Placement credit -- theoretically prime candidates for an accelerated degree -- currently fail to finish in four years. In addition, all of this, as the European example demonstrates, is predicated upon another set of numbers -- K through 12.

Underlying the issue of degree non-completion at all levels of our higher education system are the demographics of access. Opening the doors of college to more Americans, including particularly students from groups historically underrepresented in higher ed, creates challenges in regard to cost. But it also raises the issue of quality. Will we expand opportunity and access by diluting the product by introducing a three-year degree at such a critical period of opportunity in their lives?

Of course, the commentary on three-year degrees is typically based on the assumption that it will radically decrease cost. But the new model has yet to be rigorously structured financially. The claims are that three years will save a great deal of money, but are we certain that is so? Implementing an accelerated degree efficiently in regard to scheduling, advising, and facilities will require additional administrative overhead. Offering the necessary courses may well mean additional faculty. And there will be other added instructional costs. These might include extra professors to implement more intensive pedagogy, new monies to support online work, or both. Could it in fact cost the same or at the outside even more to accelerate?

Capturing the spirit of the times, one prominent advocate styled the three-year degree as the "higher ed equivalent of a fuel-efficient car" compared to the "gas guzzling four-year course." A metaphor from the food industry might be more apt. Slow education, as in slow cooking, is enthusiastically replaced by Fast Ed or McEd, with comparable results. Higher education is certainly in need of efficiency. Our current business model, which has yielded steadily increasing costs, needs change and, perhaps, radically so. Let us not be fooled by adapting across the system solutions that appear corrective but may be destructive of the virtue and distinction of American higher education and its ambition -- education for the workforce and for participation and leadership in a democracy.

Reducing the undergraduate program to three years from four is a "quick fix." Much is to be lost and much wagered, ironically at a time when the four-year program that has helped so many to success is being made available across American society. We can do better.


William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College. Neil B. Weissman is provost and dean of the college at Dickinson.


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