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The 3-Year Debate: Education Leader Comes Out Against Accelerated Bachelor's Degrees

Jun 03, 2010

The president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities just released a statement arguing against shortening the typical 4-year undergraduate degree program. Her letter stands against a growing wave of support for standardizing the 3-year degree plan.

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The Push for More College Graduates

The higher education system is under a lot of pressure to churn out college graduates. In the 21st-century 'knowledge economy,' both individual and community economic health depend on the skills and credentials that come from postsecondary education. It's with this in mind that the Obama administration has called for the U.S. to be the world leader in college graduates by 2020, which has put challenges for both college access and college completion at the forefront of educational politics.

All this pressure has made the 3-year bachelor's degree a very hot topic. High profile op-eds in The New York Times and Newsweek have argued that the 3-year degree reduces education costs for students and speeds up their graduation from college and entry into the working world. Some have even suggested that it would make colleges more efficient by utilizing their facilities during typically 'idle' times such as long winter and summer breaks since 3-year students would be forced to take courses rather vacations.

But not everyone agrees that making three years the norm for completing a bachelor's degree is a good idea. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), released a statement today arguing that 'the three-year option is not a universal panacea for increasing completion or for reducing costs.' She asserts that all efforts to alter the education system or increase degree attainment must answer two fundamental questions: 'What do all college students need to learn and be able to do?' According to Schneider, these needs will be difficult, if not impossible, for most students to meet in only three years.

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Few Students Could Acquire Necessary Skills in Three Years

Schneider does come out in support of existing optional 3-year degree plans that serve 'highly motivated, high-achieving students' who are capable of earning college-level credits in high school as well as working intensively for three years without significant breaks. But she points out that this is an unrealistic expectation for the majority of college students, many of whom even struggle to earn a bachelor's in four years. Schneider points to previous research by the AAC&U that shows that only 27% of students at public schools and 48% of students at private institutions finish their degrees in four years. Most supporters of 3-year programs say that those students who have good reasons to take longer will, just like they do now. But Schneider points out that raising expectations for all students won't magically solve the academic difficulties faced by most students.

One of the greatest challenges in K-12 education is college- and career-readiness. Researchers from the ACT, the U.S. Department of Education and many other organizations have found that shockingly few students enter postsecondary institutions ready for college-level coursework. This creates an enormous burden on colleges to offer remedial courses in addition to regular classes and forces students to play 'catch-up,' typically leading to an increased time to degree. Policymakers seeking to make college education more efficient would do better to focus their efforts on improving college preparation in public high schools. Shaving a year off of the undergraduate experience will put underprepared students even farther behind, while 'short changing' most students by leaving them unprepared for post-college success.

Schneider's statement points to the fact that the 21st century has placed more, not fewer, demands on students in terms of the knowledge and skills that they're expected to attain. She points to a series of broad skills that modern employers have come to expect from college graduates in addition to field-specific knowledge. These range from information literacy to intercultural knowledge, as well as ethics, innovation and creative problem-solving. Acquiring such skills requires a broad-based education that is difficult enough to achieve in four years - a growing body of research indicates that educational quality is suffering just as much as educational attainment. Trying to cram the undergraduate experience into three years will force most students to specialize, sacrificing crucial skills as well as their competitiveness in the job market.

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Schneider also asserts that 3-year degree programs will add even more strain to institutions with precious few resources. She points out that, in spite of the recent (and temporary) influx of federal stimulus money, the public colleges and universities that educate the majority of America's students are struggling to cope with both the fallout of the financial crisis and years of disinvestment by state governments. Although the AAC&U supports efforts to tighten curricula and help students focus on essential skills, the costs associated with pushing students through in three years will far outweigh any possible financial benefits to the schools. Schneider adds, 'These institutions face the daunting challenge of educating more students while crafting new financial models that will keep costs reasonable and sustainable for students and taxpayers over the long term.'

Schneider's statement, however, places the most emphasis on the effects on students. She contends that unrealistic expectations combined with further sacrifices in educational quality will cause far more damage than four years of tuition bills. In Schneider's view, the desire to standardize the 3-year degree is just part of the urge for a magical 'silver bullet' to solve a range of problems in higher education with one broad, and ineffective, stroke. She ends her statement with a strong assertion:

'For the overwhelming majority of American college students, a mere three years of college study might leave them with a piece of paper, but not with a degree that has real value; it would foreclose their opportunity for a truly empowering education. And our nation, too, would be left without the well-educated citizens needed to rebuild our economy and strengthen our democratic values and traditions for our shared future security and prosperity.'

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