• October 1, 2014

The Overworked Bachelor's Degree Needs a Makeover

6039-Selingo

James Yang for The Chronicle

The 1.7 million students who graduated from American colleges and universities last month, their newly minted bachelor’s degrees in hand, face bleak prospects. Their average student-loan debt is some $33,000. The underemployment rate for recent graduates is 44 percent, meaning the jobs many get won’t require the bachelor’s degrees they just earned. And since many jobs offer low pay or are only part time, the age of financial independence for college graduates these days is 30.

Potential employers aren’t offering much encouragement either. Nine out of 10 business leaders in a recent poll by Northeastern University said most college graduates lack the important skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

Many higher-education leaders contend that the difficulties that today’s college graduates face are the fallout of an economy stuck in neutral. While slow economic growth is certainly a factor, there is a larger problem that academe would prefer to ignore.

The bachelor’s degree—the backbone of the American higher-education system for generations—was never designed to do all it is now expected to do: Provide a vehicle for teens to mature into adulthood, offer a solid general education, and prepare graduates to step immediately into high-skills employment. What’s desperately needed is a bachelor’s-degree makeover, one that isolates the liberal-arts education everyone needs in a fast-changing global economy and is flexible enough to accommodate the demand for skills training throughout one’s life.

Forty years ago, when a college education wasn’t required to get ahead financially, the bachelor’s degree was the mechanism for acquiring a broad general education. The skills-training part came later, in graduate and professional schools or from an employer.

Now college students are expected to acquire that general education in tandem with skills training—as well as to rack up outside-the-classroom experiences through research projects, internships, or study abroad. And all of that is stuffed into the traditional four-year undergraduate education.

As the cost of college has spiraled upward in the past decade, parents and students have become focused more than ever on employment preparation and graduating on time. Intellectual discovery and exploration are no longer a priority. It’s too expensive.

To reduce the tension between providing the vocational training that employers demand and a traditional liberal-arts education, the bachelor’s degree should be split into two parts: a one-year program focused on a general education, followed by separate programs of varying lengths, depending on the particular needs of an academic field. So after that first year, the credential for a computer-science major might take three years, but history or English majors might take just one.

The requirements for a bachelor’s degree already vary depending on a student’s major. For example, at George Mason University, computer-engineering students are required to collect 102 credits in their major, while history majors need only 36 credits. Yet every student is required to spend months and years in a classroom to collect the 120 credits typically necessary to receive his or her diploma, piling up debt and forgoing the important experiential learning that students and employers find so valuable.

The remake of the bachelor’s degree should begin with its starting point. Many 18-year-olds are simply not ready to start college only three months after graduating from high school. Yet there are few organized, inexpensive options available if they want to delay college to earn money, gain credits, or just figure out what they want to do in life. More campuses should follow the lead of Tufts University, which beginning this fall will build a structured gap year into the curriculum for some students by providing a year of full-time national or international service before they arrive on the campus.

The idea that "college" is one specific place where we spend four years just after high school made sense when we had shorter life expectancies and worked for one employer our entire careers. But given the frequency with which Americans change jobs and careers today, we need access to higher education at various points in our lifetimes, not just for a few years at the age of 18.

In addition to the need for the bachelor’s degree to be flexible in terms of its overall length, it should turn into a true lifelong credential, allowing students to dip back in and then out of the curriculum to update their knowledge and skills. For the right to do that, students would pay an annual subscription fee and pay lower tuition fees upfront.

A similar idea emerged last month at Stanford University, the result of a yearlong exercise to rethink undergraduate education undertaken by students at the design school. Dubbed the "open loop" university, this plan would admit students at 18 but give them six years of access to residential learning opportunities, to use anytime in their life. Such a path through college could shift our deep-rooted cultural belief that college is something young people do, and would make alternative pathways, such as gap years and low-residency colleges, more acceptable to those students who wouldn’t benefit from the typical campus experience.

It would also provide an easy way for adults to learn new careers and allow older professionals to offer their expertise to faculty members and researchers on a more regular basis. While the plan at Stanford is meant to provoke thinking, there’s no reason it can’t be copied by others.

Students are already patching together their own versions of a bachelor’s degree. One-third of students transfer to another college at least once before earning their diploma. And the idea of attending multiple institutions on the way to graduation is increasingly common even for affluent students: Twenty-three percent of students at community colleges come from households earning $100,000 a year or more.

Today’s college students are remarkably diverse in age and background, yet each receives the same one-size-fits-all, traditional four-year degree. Those students deserve a new bachelor’s degree that better meets both their varied needs and aspirations and the requirements of today’s economy. It’s time to rethink the purpose of the degree and offer more flexibility as to when, where, and how students acquire it.

Jeffrey Selingo is a contributing editor at The Chronicle and a professor of practice at Arizona State University.

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