Confessions of a 3-Year-Degree Student

November 04, 2009

Lamar Alexander, the senior senator from my state of Tennessee, recently published an essay in Newsweek in which he called on colleges and universities to offer more three-year baccalaureate degrees as an option for more students. One of his observations caught my eye: "The three-year degree is starting to catch on, but it isn't a new idea."

I smiled when I read those words because I was one of those three-year-degree students back in the early 1980s. In high school, I took an Advanced Placement course and scored high enough to earn six credit hours when I enrolled at James Madison University as a freshman. My roommate (a high-school friend who was a year ahead of me) let me in on a secret: Further credits could be earned by passing a College-Level Examination Program test. I took a few and passed enough to earn another 12 hours of credits.

One Saturday morning that first fall, I realized that by carefully planning my course schedules, I could graduate in three years instead of four. I knew I wanted to be a college professor and I wanted to speed up my timetable, so I scoured the course catalog with that in mind. I dropped my second major (political science) and found an efficient way to overlap my major (anthropology) with a single minor (human biology). I carefully charted my curriculum map on a single sheet of notebook paper. I figured out that by averaging just over 18 credit hours a semester, I could graduate without having to take summer-school classes, completing the magic 128 hours necessary for graduation.

Proud of my plan, I took it to my freshman adviser, a crusty history professor, who scoffed at me. "It won't work," he said. "Trust me, you just need to relax and enjoy your classes. Don't be in such a hurry. You'll never have this opportunity again."

Undeterred, I stuck to my guns. When I switched to a new adviser in my major, I can still remember arguing with him about whether my plan would work. On several occasions I pulled out that sheet of notebook paper and showed him that it would, but he would just roll his eyes. I probably was a little on the snarky side, being a mere teenager and all, so I'm sure I drove him crazy, but in the end he signed my registration and let me take my courses.

Only once did I run into a real problem: A course I needed was not offered in the semester it was supposed to be offered, which messed up my 18-hour load; my final semester I had to carry 20 hours, which included two lab courses in zoology. That final semester was a nightmare: Many weeks I spent upward of 20 hours a week holed up in labs.

Along the way, I quit most of my extracurricular activities. I resigned from the Inter-Hall Council, dropped my membership in various campus political groups, and didn't even have time to hold a part-time job. I worked myself hard through the summer to make money for the rest of the year, but I had few extra dollars for anything during the fall and spring. Once a week I allowed myself to buy a soda from a machine in my dorm lobby as a treat. That was all I could afford.

I tried to take a long view of my penury. I was saving money by graduating early. And sure enough, in 1984, I walked across the commencement platform to receive my B.S. degree; I was all of 20 years old. I had graduated in just six semesters.

What came next, however, was not graduate school. I was so thoroughly exhausted intellectually that I ended up taking a year off to work and to complete some other courses part time, ones I took for fun at the local college (which was fairly inexpensive).

I needed that year to ponder the rest of my life for, in my haste, I had neglected to figure out which discipline I really felt passionate about in terms of a future academic specialty. After deciding against anthropology, I shifted my interest to creative writing and literature. The following year I headed to graduate school full time, taking only one additional break before completing four graduate degrees in 10 years, including a Ph.D. in literature.

I now serve as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Union University, right here in Senator Alexander's backyard. As he began talking up his idea about re-evaluating the four-year degree, I couldn't help but chuckle. In the 20 years since I followed my own three-year plan, I've met scores of others who did the same thing. It has always been possible for strong-willed students to complete their degrees early, either by abandoning the old agrarian academic calendar we still use or by availing themselves of dual-credit programs and examination credits.

As a faculty member, I know that the first response most of us will have to a three-year degree plan is to lament its effects on academic quality. Senator Alexander, however, is calling for neither a change in the number of credits nor a change in their distribution within a degree. He is simply asking for us to consider changing the way that we plan our curriculum maps, to allow students to add extra short terms to their schedules or to earn more credits through Advanced Placement courses or dual-enrollment programs.

I share many of my colleagues' concerns about the quality of those programs. But not only have they been around for more than a generation in one form or another, they are not going away any time soon.

Like many deans, I have begun to consider what a three-year degree plan might look like at my university. As I have reflected on my own undergraduate experiences, I share Senator Alexander's prescription that such programs should be limited to "high-ability, highly motivated students," as he put it. Three elements must be present for the success of such plans:

  • Institutions should be required to plan courses, including mini-term courses, well in advance. That is no simple matter when resources are stretched and course offerings are interrupted with frequency. Public institutions in particular are being pinched by drastic budget cuts that have increased course sizes and impeded planning. One reason many students find their graduation dates postponed is because of the unavailability of courses in timely rotations. Three-year program will create significant opportunities for institutions that can manage such careful planning.
  • Institutions should have to improve academic advising. As much as I loved my undergraduate experiences, my advisers were more likely to have held me back from advancing rather than facilitating my plan. Advising is a component of faculty service that doesn't get a lot of respect from faculty members. Three-year plans can provide institutions with a testing ground for ways to improve advising, which could also benefit other students as well. Further, advising will need to include an element of intellectual mentorship that is not part of many advising sessions at present; that will take time but will be of critical importance to students.
  • Students will have to understand that their time in college will be different than the stereotypical four-year experience. They will have to cut back on their extracurricular activities. Part-time work, including summer jobs, may not be possible. Career exploration may not be as meandering. Long weekends spent following the Kings of Leon on their latest concert tour, or vacation breaks spent lounging by blue water probably will not be as easily pursued. And students will not be able to change their majors or minors pell-mell; they will have to learn to plan early and check their progress often.

A final word about the economics of three-year degree programs. In Senator Alexander's essay, he lamented that "students now stay on campus almost as long as their presidents … [as] an undergraduate degree has stretched to six years and seven months." The real problem, I suspect, in public financing for higher education is not four-year programming; it is five-, six-, seven-, and eight-year programming and the number of institutions with low graduation rates.

Most of us knew students whose families blindly footed their bills. I knew one young man whose grandparents paid his tuition, books, rent, and even car payments while he attended school for eight years on full-time status. It was amazing how quickly he graduated when he was cut off. Now that I know more about higher-education financing, it aggravates me to no end that his university received state subsidies for every one of those courses that he took for 16 semesters. He was delayed not by a lack of timely course offerings, but rather by a lack of motivation to grow up and get a job. Indeed, some institutions apparently share that lack of motivation, taking in students by the bushel and happily receiving public subsidies, even as they seem to ignore their responsibility to effect timely graduation.

Growing up and getting jobs is the pragmatic effect of three-year programming, but the idealist in me also believes that a critical resource issue is at stake here that is about the ultimate ideal of attending college: gaining an education. If we can find ways to use our resources more effectively, we will be able to create more access to better learning, not just to produce better workers and better citizens but also better thinkers and better people. If rethinking our academic calendars is all that it takes to achieve that goal, then I'm a big supporter of Senator Alexander's proposal. After all, I'm an alumnus of it.

Gene C. Fant is a professor of English and dean of arts and sciences at Union University, in Jackson, Tenn. He is also a contributing blogger at our On Hiring blog.