Leader of Liberal-Education Group Takes Stand Against 3-Year Degrees

June 03, 2010

The president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a national organization focused on undergraduate liberal education, has taken a formal stand in opposition to a spate of recent proposals for colleges to either offer three-year degrees to a large share of their students or reduce the number of credits needed to earn a bachelor's degree.

"While the pressure to graduate more students at a time of ever-decreasing resources is acute, we do a disservice to individual students and our society if we confer degrees that do not assure that students have learned all they need to know in this very demanding global century," says a statement issued today by Carol Geary Schneider, who, as the association's top official, took the position on her own.

In a news release accompanying the statement, Ms. Schneider said, "The amount of wishful thinking driving this three-year degree discussion is stunning to me," adding, "It's time to take a hard look at the actual evidence on students' achievement shortfalls."

"We would do better," she said, "to focus on helping students actually finish in four years."

Ms. Schneider's decision to take such a public stand comes at a time when calls for colleges to provide bachelor's degrees in less time are gaining widespread attention. Among recent developments, The New York Times last week published an op-ed essay by two George Washington University scholars—Gerald Kauvar, a research professor of public policy and public administration, and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a professor of public service and former president of the institution—which called the current timetable by which students get through college "wasteful and expensive" and argued, "There is simply no reason undergraduate degrees can't be finished in three years, and many reasons they should be."

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican who served as secretary of education from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush, generated considerable debate on the subject with an October 17 essay in Newsweek arguing that, for cash-strapped colleges, expanding the three-year option or year-round schedules "may be more palatable than asking Congress for additional bailout money, asking legislators for more state support, or asking students for even higher tuition payments."

Robert Zemsky, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, an advisory group, has similarly argued the need to shorten the time students spend in undergraduate education.

Fears of Shortchanging Students

In her statement, Ms. Schneider stresses that she does not object to accelerated programs that allow "a small number of highly motivated, high-achieving students" to graduate in as little as three years by earning college credits in high school and attending college throughout the full calendar year. But she argues that the three-year option "will be helpful only to a small number of students" and that "we should not, as some have suggested, just shave off an entire year's worth of expected learning, either at the college level or at the high school level."

Noting that more than half of students who enter college are not adequately prepared for college-level work, Ms. Schneider's statement argues that three-year degree programs would leave the overwhelming majority at risk of ending up "with a piece of paper, but not with a degree that has real value."

Employers today, the statement says, are looking to colleges to develop a list of skills that were not emphasized in the curriculum a generation ago, such as global and intercultural knowledge and competence at solving problems in diverse settings, with the result being that "expectations for college-level learning have grown dramatically higher" in recent decades.

The statement says the association is also concerned about proposals to have students simply skip their senior year of high school—based on the belief that the year represents wasted time—and proceed directly to college. Both eliminating the senior year of high school and cutting the number of years or credit hours students need to graduate from college will leave students shortchanged, the statement says, "and many will end up unprepared for success."

Mixed Responses

The basic arguments presented in Ms. Schneider's statement were cheered Wednesday by Kevin D. Carey, who as policy director for Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank, has himself questioned the wisdom of proposals to shorten the duration of bachelor's degree programs. In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Carey argued that proponents of three-year degree programs overestimate how much they would save because, assuming students will still learn the same amount, colleges will incur additional costs in providing more courses during the summer.

"On some level," Mr. Carey said, "this discussion highlights the severe limitations of defining learning in terms of time" and the problems raised by how obtaining a two- or four-year degree tells "how long you were taught" and "not how much you were taught."

But Mr. Zemsky of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, who had obtained and read a copy of Ms. Schneider's statement, said Wednesday, "My response is pretty simple. I think it is sad."

The association, he argued, "ought to be in the lead in thinking about how to simplify and redesign the undergraduate curriculum," which "has become congested—you might even say constipated," with many students actually earning many more credits than they need while taking longer than four years to graduate. Instead, he said, "they have offered an almost-lukewarm defense of the status quo."

The statement "just doesn't help," he said. "They're stuck in the mud."