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September 10, 2012 3:15 PM The Three-year Degree is No Solution

By Max Ehrenfreund

Allowing college students to earn their degrees in three years is a popular reform strategy right now. Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-Indiana), Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) and Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-Virginia) have all called on public universities in their states to develop three-year programs. Legislators in Rhode Island and Washington have asked university systems there to offer three-year degrees, too. The idea is to cut the cost of college for students by allowing them to begin earning money as a full member of the workforce a year earlier. Three-year programs in which students attend summer courses could also allow administrators to use their facilities more efficiently, instead of letting classrooms sit empty all summer.

Yet a new paper from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities gives three-year bachelor's degrees a lukewarm review.

The authors, Daniel Hurley and Thomas Harnisch, discuss several approaches to three-year degrees, including reducing the number of courses required for a degree for qualified students and compressing all of the required credits into a three-year period. Already some students—about 2 percent of first-time bachelor's degree candidates, according to Department of Education data cited in the paper—graduate in three years, many of them outside a formal three-year program.

The problem with all of these strategies, of course, is that graduating from college in four years is hard enough as it is. Only about 38 percent of college students graduate in four years. Simply offering a three-year degree doesn't address the basic issues that prevent students from graduating on time.

In a three-year program, there's no time for remedial coursework, note the authors, Daniel Hurley and Thomas Harnisch. Students who need to work to support themselves don't have time for the demanding course schedule of a three-year program that lasts throughout the calendar year. Nor do older students with children or other familial obligations.

Students who have the money, on the other hand, tend to like college and want to stay for the full four years, as Asher Roth explains.

Hurley and Harnisch conclude that the only students likely to enroll in a three-year degree program are motivated students with clear career ambitions and little financial need who would likely graduate on time anyway.

"Three-year degree program options have failed to receive enough broad-based student participation to be thought of as top-tier policy consideration," they write.

The authors make another point, one I think is worth considering in any discussion about reform in higher education:

A core value of a liberal undergraduate education is offering students an opportunity to explore different courses of study. Many students do not start college with a fixed plan, and others switch or add academic degree programs. However, three-year degree programs generally require students to stay with a specific academic major throughout their entire course of study.

The movement for three-year degrees aims to make college in the United States more like undergraduate education in the rest of the world, where students choose an area of specialization very early and move quickly toward a degree. One of the premises of our college education system, by contrast, is that the purpose of education is not merely to prepare students to enter the workforce, but to make them better citizens and better people.

That requires giving them time and freedom for intellectual exploration and personal development, which, from a certain perspective, makes college very inefficient. Many people would probably argue that this eighteenth-century approach to education, based on Enlightenment ideas about the individual, is obsolete anyway.

Yet even setting aside the larger questions about what college is really for, Hurley and Harnisch show that three-year degree programs face immediate practical obstacles in achieving stated policy goals.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund