College Guide


June 03, 2010 4:03 PM Not So Fast

By Daniel Luzer


The three-year bachelor’s degree may well be this year’s chief educational fad. First former education secretary Lamar Alexander touted it as the solution for higher education. Lately several colleges have actually started to adopt the three-year plan. Lately Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels decided that three-year college should become more common at his state schools.

Well it’s not a good idea, says Carol Geary Schneider, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the leading national association of American colleges. According to an article by Peter Schmidt in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

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.”

Schneider has a good point. Many, many students already enter college forced to do semesters worth of remedial work and the average student actually currently takes like six years to get a bachelor’s degree. A four-year bachelor’s degree isn’t even standard. What’s driving this sorta slapdash discussion about making a three-year degree the norm? [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • A N O'Ther on June 04, 2010 3:42 AM:

    What's driving this is the fact that in many other places in the world, three years is plenty of time to obtain a Bachelor's degree. Of course, given that the fact that you think it "actually currently takes like six years", it is not like surprising like that you find this like hard to like understand.

  • mj on June 04, 2010 5:25 AM:

    "Takes like six years?"

    Go back for a few more.

  • JJ on June 04, 2010 6:40 AM:

    It's of a piece with other current educational reforms. Saying it, making catch-phrases, showing pretty pictures of happy young people make it so.

    Logisitics? Reality? Answers to hard questions? Well, why do you hate the children (or the college age young adults)?

    Thank you and Ms. Geary for daring to question!

  • Mark on June 04, 2010 9:10 AM:

    Who cares how long it takes to finish a Bachelor's degree in "many other places in the world"? You can't judge the quality or the nature of of a degree by how long it usually takes to get it.

    Those other places have different educational systems and different expectations of what a Bachelor's degree means. A 3-year Bachelor's degree from a university in England is not structured the same way as a 4-year Bachelor's degree from a university in the United States, at all.

    The unmentioned issue here is cost. Additional time to finish a degree means a lot more money spent or borrowed. Students should be focused on completing their degree The key question is why students are expected to pay for a college education at all. All higher education can be, and should be, funded by the government.

  • PQuincy on June 04, 2010 9:54 AM:

    Indeed: other countries with three year BAs also have rigorous pre-college selective schools, with tough exit exams, which students finish when they are 19 or 20. We have comprehensive high schools (which have their own virtues), that graduate students at 18.

    The comments recently coming from Stephen Trachtenberg, who proposed three-year BAs coupled with one-year MAs, gives the game away: as the BA becomes less valuable as a job qualification (not least because of the various online and for profit schools that churn them out), one response would be to make the four-year MA the 'new BA'...ensuring growth in 'graduate programs' that were really the intellectual and maturity equivalent of the BA.

    Meanwhile, I can say from experience that many one-year MA programs already produce graduates with the knowledge and skills that would have been expected of many BAs a generation ago -- and are expected of more rigorous BAs today.

  • ALiadis on June 07, 2010 1:58 PM:

    If students are not able to graduate on-time in four years, then it is correct to assume they would not be able to graduate within three years. However, this assumption would only be valid if we assume students would be learning in the same way.

    If we begin to think about active learning and demonstrated outcomes as the constant (not just seat time) -- one might believe that students can achieve the same education as their four/five/six-year counterparts.

    Take a look at the 3Year Honors Program at Southern New Hampshire University. Luzer eludes to the three-year degree as the next chief educational fad; it's certainly not a 'fad' on our campus! We re-engineered our bachelor's degree fourteen years ago. With 1st to 2nd year retention rates of 87% and three-year graduation rates of 78% - our students go on to exceptional graduate schools. (FYI: Approximately 90% of our 3Year students who change majors and enter our traditional program graduate in four-years.)

    If we expect our students to be innovative at addressing problems and issues in our society -- higher education institutions need to lead the way by examining themselves first.