The Post ran a story recently titled “Colleges Consider 3-Year Degrees to Save Undergrads Time, Money.” This is one of those ideas that gets rolled out every now and then and never goes anywhere. And I think it’s pretty clear why. There are actually two distinct proposals mentioned in the article, which confusingly oscillates between them. The first is giving students a way to earn a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree in three years. The second is awarding a degree for only three years of learning. Both ideas ultimately suffer from higher education’s opaque and limiting convention of measuring academic progress in terms of time. The problem with the earn-a-four-year-degree-in-three-years idea is that there’s nothing really new about it. Students can already take AP classes, dual high school / college enroll, go to summer school, sign up for an extra class each semester, or otherwise try to get through more material sooner. But the financial incentives aren’t always great — summer school isn’t free, so you’re stilling paying for the same number of credits. Plus, many students are on the five- and six-year tracks for their four-year degree (or longer), so three years is unlikely. And just because a relatively small subset of students could finish early doesn’t mean they will. I myself was lucky enough to go to a high school that jumped on the AP program early, back in the mid-80s, so I walked into college with 24 credits under my belt. It would have been pretty easy to finish a semester or even a year early. But why do that? College is fun! Instead, I strategically took it easy, throwing some three-course semesters into the mix and generally avoiding classes that met before noon. That still left me with only eight credits left to earn going into my last semester. So I took two classes: the last prerequisite for my major (an introductory course, incredibly) and a women’s studies class, on the premise that it would be a good place to meet women. The problem with the other proposal—awarding a degree for only three years of learning — is that three is 25 percent less than four, and so three-year degrees will be worth 25 percent less than four-year degrees in the job market, and so people won’t want them.* The question of transition to graduate and professional school also goes on the table. Some might say, “No — it will be a three-year bachelor’s degree.” But what does that even mean? What’s a bachelor’s degree other than a credential certifying that you were enrolled as a full-time student at an accredited college or university for the equivalent of four years? It’s true that Europe is rapidly transitioning to a standard three-plus-two bachelor’s and master’s system, but the last year of college prep high school there is roughly equivalent to the first year of college here. All of this flows from the inherent vagueness and inflexibility of defining higher education credentials exclusively in terms of time — credit hours, two and four-year degrees. The basic unit is still the number of hours you spent in a room having someone teach you, not any reliable, consistent measure of what you actually learned.
And that, really, is what we need. People study a lot of different things in college. It’s exceedingly unlikely that the body of knowledge, skills, experience, and attributes necessary to begin a career or graduate-level studies or some other agreed-upon milestone is exactly the same in all of them. But with a few exceptions, e.g. five-year engineering and pre-med programs, that’s what we pretend. Instead of trying to stuff four years into a three-year basket, we need to start defining and differentiating courses of study while making assessment results much more transparent, so people can take their credentials into the job market with confidence, regardless of how long those credentials took to earn. This is a good start.
*Corrected per anon in comments below. Although since four is 33 percent more than three I wonder how people would think about relative value?