• September 4, 2015

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

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."


1. paievoli - June 03, 2010 at 06:58 am

If you want to solve both problems schools might consider simply increasing content in specific courses and expand the number of credits given in those courses. This would give the students the content/credits and the school the funding. Charge by credit as opposed to the flat fee for a semester often given to full-time students.

2. kathden - June 03, 2010 at 07:01 am

"Congested" and "constipated," eh, Prof. Zemsky? Perhaps you weren't paying enough attention in rhetoric/composition class--you know, one of those congesting and constipating courses....

3. jmunley - June 03, 2010 at 07:08 am

Prof Zemsky claims "many students (are) actually earning many more credits than they need while taking longer than four years to graduate". Yes, more than a major's content is important for a valuable education. Colleges educate, not train. And changing majors can increase the credits. Today's world needs more education, not less. (I earned my Bachelor's in 3 years, going 3 out of 4 summers, and a 60 credit Master's in a year and a half.)

4. jeff1 - June 03, 2010 at 07:26 am

I think it is clearly not true that a three year degree is unreasonable. Indeed the very best students are already doing this at institutions that facilitate it. I think it is really crazy that we in the U.S. look at 6 year graduation rates, do little to control the spiraling costs of education for students, and continue to display an arrogance that the delivery model that is in place is the only model. I am embarassed for higher education. This statement from AAC&U is "sad" and it does not represent my views as a member!

5. corbinsmyth - June 03, 2010 at 09:00 am

If students can fully engage themselves in their educational experience, are able to attend classes for a couple of summers, and cann afford not to work, then three years seems reasonable. But the students I know need to work, especially fulltime in the summer. And classtime alone should not constitute our degree requirements. We are providing an education, not a series of courses.

6. cmcclain - June 03, 2010 at 09:02 am

Sigh, everyone wants a shortcut. Perhaps our most important priority should be changing the culture of entitlement and inevitability. Too many students think from the beginning that college is in their way as they pursue the degree that they think they already deserve.

In response to 4. jeff1 - June 03, 2010 at 07:26 am:

I think it is clearly not true that a three year degree is unreasonable. Indeed the very best students are already doing this at institutions that facilitate it. I think it is really crazy that we in the U.S. look at 6 year graduation rates,...

Wait a minute... students are taking six years under a four year model, and you actually think that a three year model will fix that? How does that work? By that goal-changing line of reasoning, why not one year? Why not one month?

Ultimately, the number of years is really unimportant. What is important is actively pursuing academic study. Whether the students take three years or six years, we must maintain standards and a breadth of general education so that the degree is meaningful. Remember, you don't earn a Bachelor's of English or Chemistry; you earn a Bachelor's of Arts or Sciences. That implied breadth necessitates the other courses and distinguishes between college degrees and training certificates.

7. cmcclain - June 03, 2010 at 09:09 am

Addendum to 6. cmcclain - June 03, 2010 at 09:02 am:

By the way, I know some bright ambitious students who do finish in three years. So what are colleges and universities being asked to "offer"? Seems to me that the option is already available, as long as students do the work. So, is the real question a matter of reducing the amount of work or number of hours? That issue should be off the table immediately. It sounds too much like the student pleas for a "curve" or "extra credit".

8. 22221757 - June 03, 2010 at 09:33 am

A typical higher ed response to an innovative and much needed change! Why would higher ed want to change or innovate - they have been doing the same thing, with the same results, for centuries....

9. recurver - June 03, 2010 at 09:37 am

It seems unlikely to me that undergraduates who are barely ready at 22-25 are going to be ready at 21.
American youths have become decidedly immature.

10. recurver - June 03, 2010 at 09:40 am

This seems like a pointless topic.
Students need to learn more not less and the only thing a 3 year degree path ensures is that the students will not be learning anything "extra".
Efficiency is not really one of our problem.
Lazyness, hubris, egoism, etc. these things are our problems.

11. bumbaugh - June 03, 2010 at 09:48 am

"Why would higher ed want to change or innovate" ... not an apt rhetorical question to pose to the AAC&U, 22221757.

12. bcharvey - June 03, 2010 at 09:55 am

What is "sad" is that this this discussion, which raises important issues, has already devolved into a caricature of debate in which Mr. Zemsky and other members of the scolding class paint anyone who disagrees with their a priori wisdom as mindless defenders of the status quo. Ms. Schneider did not argue against the propriety or utility of completing a baccalaureate degree in three years, but rather focused on the conditions under which that makes sense. That strikes me as the right thing to be talking about. Right now we have a system in which four years is the predominant model, with many students taking more time and a small but increasing number taking less. If the idea is that we should go to three years as the predominant model, then I think there are some basic questions that the three-year enthusiasts must answer:

1. As Ms. Schneider suggests, is the "problem" four years of study, or is it that some students do not use their four years well? What makes us believe they would use three years more effectively?

2. Whether we like it or not, some of the challenges associated with college success have to do with maturity and student development. What evidence do we have that baccalaureate education will improve when many of those in senior seminars are 20 years old? Or even more striking (for those who want to eliminate the fourth year of high school), when one quarter of entering freshmen are 16?

3. A five or six year degree is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on student circumstances and interests, the job market, and other externalities. It's bad if it signifies a student was spinning his or her wheels the whole time, but perhaps not if he or she finally found traction in year three. What makes us believe that students will have more success finding their niche in three years than in four (or more)?

We're talking about a system of education, but too many of the arguments seem to be based on exceptional cases or vague assumptions. The focus, as others have said, should be on accumulating evidence on what is actually happening and what is likely to work for most students. It's not a question of "four vs. three," but rather of understanding (on the part educators and students) what is effective. Given the diversity of students, to me that is likely to argue for a system of more choices, better evaluation, and greater flexibility. A standard three-year model does not seem to offer that.

13. educationfrontlines - June 03, 2010 at 10:33 am

Exchange programs are often embarassing, with the American student finding him/herself behind a year or more overseas, and the foreign student in America coasting in our K-12 schools. Now we have proposals to dilute the 4-year college degree to a 3-year degree (I am not addressing the accelerated 4-year taken in 3 plan) at the same time Hong Kong and some other Asian countries are moving from the British-style 3-year college degree to 4-year degrees and programs. Between grade inflation and content deflation, the U.S. tertiary education reputation is in serious trouble.

Two summers ago, I was speaking to a university class of 60 biology student teachers in China. "Compared to what you were taught a few years ago when you were in high school biology, will you in the future, as high school teachers, need to teach less, the same, or more biology to your spectrum of high school students?" I asked. In choral unison, the 60 students replied: "More!" I do not get that response in America where we seem to think we can get by knowing less. Samuel Mudd, the farmer-doctor who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth, took just two years of college in the mid-1880s! I have the impression that in America, it is not just the iPod generation that thinks we can go back to less education and just look everything up online.

In the 1980s, I wrote that if the maximum human lifespan could not extend beyond age 115 (and it appears it cannot), then the fact that it takes a finite amount of time to learn something means that someday, humanity will reach a point where we will have to specialize students' education from their earliest life so that in their final few years they will be able to research at the edge of science. There will then be a point where we cannot advance further because the time it takes to learn more runs up against our maximum lifespan. It is obvious that will never become a problem with the U.S. mindset. The 3-year advocates are consciously deciding to devolve education in the U.S.

John Richard Schrock

14. penn4 - June 03, 2010 at 10:41 am

Four year undergraduate degrees have become the norm, and in many cases colleges and universities have constructed degree programs, general education programs, and minor/elective opportunities to "fill" those four years without much regard to the quality and necessity of the educational experience. From what I have seen from many of the three-year degreee program proposals, there has been more evaluation and consideration given to what experiences, skills, and knowledge are necessary for a student in a given program. The idea that four years is the default, and there for the correct, time frame for an appropriate undergraduate experience seems rooted in history and conjecture rather than data and analysis.

15. panacea - June 03, 2010 at 10:49 am

When we have an educational "system" where too many students take layers of remedial courses before they can even begin college level work, this discussion is pointless.

The real question we have to answer, is what do we want our higher educational system to accomplish? Once we've set realistic goals based on the quality of students we are actually teaching, then we can talk about how long it should take them to finish.

16. iteachpsych - June 03, 2010 at 10:56 am

The majority of my students come to college woefully underprepared. Many cannot handle the burden of an ordinary full-time class load, much less the heavier class load that an accelerated degree would require. I have seen highly capable students power their way successfully through college in shorter periods of time, but they are few and far between. The emphasis should be on quality, not speed.

17. rrowlett - June 03, 2010 at 11:01 am

For vertically integrated degree programs including most curricula in the sciences, compressing the bachelor's degree into three years poses significant, perhaps insuperable challenges. Many students who can now complete a science degree program in four years may be ill-prepared to cope with the professional expectations of chemistry, biochemistry, biology, etc. in only three years. It's not just courses, credits, and credentialing: it's an accumulation of increasingly sophisticated intellectual tools and understanding, including for many undergraduates, a long-term original research project or other capstone project. The students that will suffer most will be those who are academically at risk, and less well-prepared for college work. I would be concerned that one of the net effects of a three-year bachelors degree is a mass exodus from the sciences, and that would not serve our nation well at all.

18. glgreen - June 03, 2010 at 11:52 am

Many of my students already graduate in 3 to 3 1/2 years since they enroll with a number of AP credits on their transcript. They then take an overload each semester, add in a summer program, and walk away with less debt in their customized three year program. Same number of credits. There is loss here, however. The AP credits are not the same quality as the college courses. The highest value is placed upon speed and grades not learning and deep reflection. Students who do the 3 to 3 1/2 year track are less mature when going out and many are as disoriented vocationally as they were when they entered. The short-track students also fail to explore widely beyond their general education requirements and major. Ah, well, it's just about the diploma anyway, isn't it?

19. jeff1 - June 03, 2010 at 11:58 am

It is not about the time it is about quality 4 years, 3 years or 6 years. We as higher education professionals need to continuously question our assumptions about our models rather than draw lines in the sand and make pronouncements.

Perhaps I have been spoiled but I have seen a fair number of students able to accelerate their degree programs and still achieve the necessary goals and even excellence. Too many in this discussion assume that is not possible. It is possible. At the same time I recognize that acceleration, like college, is not for every person.

This article is about a representative of one of the largest higher education associations in the world taking a stand . . . not really about all the side issues brought up or the fact that we need to continuously improve and focus on the best approaches.

20. clasfaculty - June 03, 2010 at 12:17 pm

The debate around three vs four years ignores the degree of preparation students have when entering the university. If students received a solid education in high school in the curriculum that comprises the general education core, then the freshman year could probably be eliminated. This is probably already the case at elite schools and flagship univsrsities, where students enter the system prepared, and i suspect the calls for three years come from such schools. Alas at many schools, mine included, students are not yet prepared to engage fully in a specific discipline, having not explored the richness of choices that awaits them.

21. 11152886 - June 03, 2010 at 01:47 pm

The option to take additional credits after 18 per year without additional credit fees was not available for some years at my college until it embraced a 3 year option last year for select, prepared students. Now it is. This option only satisfies the brightest and best. This is great because they are no longer held back by additional fees and charges that had been instated some years ago ( unlike when I was a student and could take all the courses and audits I wanted each semester at no additional charge beyond the fee for the semester.

22. 11152886 - June 03, 2010 at 01:47 pm

Oops, I meant 18 per semester, and 36 for the year.

23. performgrp - June 03, 2010 at 02:10 pm

Abbreviated bachelor degree programs are a concern, but what keeps me up at night are doctoral (EdD) programs which are 100% online, have open admissions policies, and/or have little rigor or substance at all.

24. 22286593 - June 03, 2010 at 03:20 pm

I think what would make this a truly interesting discussion is to link a year-round operation of the university with a 12-month salary for the faculty who would choose this route. Imagine that universities can implement a four-quarter or a three-semester academic years. Under the semester model, faculty could choose to teach two semesters and draw 9/12 salary (what is done now) OR to teach three semesters and draw 12/12 salary for the additional 15-week of teaching. With three full semesters, the university would more fully utilize their facilities, better prepared students could graduate in three years, and faculty members could earn a full, 100 percent salary if they are willing to put in 45 weeks of teaching time for any given year. This, I think, could be a win-win solution for everyone involved.

25. dnelson1 - June 03, 2010 at 04:21 pm

This is a pretty balanced account of the statement issued by Carol Geary Schneider on 3-year degrees. Until, that is, the last paragraph quoting Robert Zemsky, who says that "the association ought to be in the lead in thinking about how to (...) redesign the undergraduate curriculum." That is, in fact, exactly what the AAC&U is doing and the association's leadership has been exemplary, research-driven, and inspirational to colleges and universities, public and private, across the United States and abroad. It's surprising that Professor Zemsky wouldn't know that and seems disingenuous, if not downright irresponsible on the part of Chronicle author Peter Schmidt to give Zemsky the last word. Google AAC&U and take a look at the work the association is doing: http://www.aacu.org/resources/liberaleducation/index.cfm. AAC&U has worked with hundreds of institutions and written widely on curricular redesign, on reinventing liberal education for the 21st-century, on how to raise expectations and college readiness for that wider, deeper cut of America's ever-changing population whom we ignore, as higher educators and as a democracy, at our peril. I could go on and on about the leadership AAC&U has provided, to my own University of Wisconsin System, as well as countless other state systems and institutions. AAC&U "stuck in the mud?" I don't think so. If any higher education association is working to reverse the tide and buck the current of the academy's inertia, it's AAC&U.

26. x1234 - June 03, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I think we need to keep in mind that this discussion comes at a time in which tuition/fees for higher education are skyrocketing. I had three students last semester who were pursuing the 3 year degree because their parents couldn't afford any more than that. These students didn't want to accumulate a lot of debt, and I cannot blame them. If higher education costs were reduced, this conversation would disappear.

Its not much but that's my two cents.

27. dr_zed - June 04, 2010 at 05:22 pm

I easily exceeded my credit requirement for graduation in 3 years (AP credits) and would have loved to have done that. My college required 4 years "residence" so it wasn't allowed. I disagree that AP courses are by definition poorer quality... it just depends on the teacher and class size. I was very well prepared by high school. My 4th college year was much less productive, which seems to be common. The cost of the 4th year would have been a nice boost to my retirement funds. However, I realize my situation would have been different with a mediocre high school experience.

28. csoehl - June 07, 2010 at 10:21 am

New College of Florida, my alma mater, used to achieve a three-year degree that included a core curriculum, intensive independent study, qualifying examinations and a senior thesis. It was a complete, challenging and comprehensive degree program that has served many distinguished alums very well as the high number of national graduate fellowships and grants awarded to NCF grads attests.

The problem is that colleges would have to admit students already prepared for college level work, which would cut enrollments dramatically and, by extension, monies available to support fancy new residence halls, recreation centers, and other amenities we did without.

29. ashleysnhu - June 07, 2010 at 02:14 pm

The duration of an academic degree program is not the measuring stick for success - it is the assessment of the learning objectives through demonstrated outcomes. I suspect that only the educators and students who are able to see education as a "process", rather than as a defined period of time, will be able to truly value the contributions and perspectives offered by Robert Zemski, Lamar Alexander and others.

In 1995, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) was the only private university given a FIPSE grant by the U.S. Department of Education to find a way to reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of an undergraduate education. This grant funded a competency-based, three-year bachelor's degree program that is completed in six semesters without overload, summer, winter/spring break or weekend classes. Students are grouped in cohorts for classes, but otherwise are integrated into university life - many are athletes and become leaders of student organizations, live in residence halls with four-year degree programs, bu save a year of tuition and room/board expenses. We have a 78% three-year graduation rate (close to 90% four-year graduation rate for students who leave the program) and a 1st to 2nd year retention rate of 87%.

While other colleges offer three-year degrees, it appears their traditional four-year program has been compressed into three years, thus requiring students to take extra courses during regular semesters, during winter/spring breaks and/or during the summer. Using this model of "compression", I can understand why educators might have concerns. This compressed shift in education is simply a change in the speedometer.

Schmidt quoted, "Employers today, [...] are looking to colleges to develop a list of skills that were not emphasized in the curriculum a general 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 3Year Honors Program curriculum at SNHU is based on ten competencies derived from employer feedback: communication, information tehcnology, analytical skills, global orientation, research, problem solving, legal and ethical practices - to name a few.

A 3Year bachelors degree program isn't for everyone, but it can be done... rather successfully, I might add. However, it can't be done by a few minor tweaks to your existing curriculum.

For more information on the three-year degree program at SNHU, please visit: http://www.snhu.edu/2530.asp.

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