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Three year uni degrees? Not so good, actually

February 22, 2009

See “The Buzz and Spin on 3-Year Degrees,” Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed (Feb. 17/09).

Some highlights:

The motivations for offering such degrees are clearly grounded in seeking efficiencies. No-one would appear to be trying to make a pedagogical argument:

When U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander spoke this month at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, he urged college leaders to offer three-year bachelor’s degrees. The concept would cut “one fourth of the time and up to one third of the cost,” he said, calling three-year degrees the “higher ed equivalent of a fuel-efficient car,” compared to the traditional “gas guzzling four-year course.”…

Richard Vedder, a Spellings Commission alumnus who leads the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is among the higher ed critics who have embraced the notion of the three-year degree. In a blog posting, he noted that Thomas Jefferson’s two-year program at the College of William and Mary didn’t stunt his intellectual growth. “Today, undergraduates seldom finish before 22, and Ph.D.’s seldom receive their degree before the age of 27 or 28…. Colleges have been able to get away with keeping productive resources under their control for longer and longer periods (collecting tuition all the while), despite no demonstrated evidence that this has sizable positive learning effects,” he wrote.

“Productive resources,” otherwise known as “students”?

George Keller … made the case for three-year degrees by noting that many students today are more likely to enter college with Advanced Placement credit and to leave with plans for graduate school, somewhat minimizing the need for “depth” in undergraduate programs. …

Colleges and universities have an “apparent intransigence” on the issue, he wrote …

Well, yes, call us proudly intransigent, about depth at least. (And am I the only one utterly sick of these sorts of disparaging characterizations of academics? Is there no possibility in these people’s minds that we may sometimes know what we are talking about? That we are not uniformly self-interested? That centuries-old educational institutions might just know what they are doing?)

The article goes on to list a series of institutions which tried such programmes, with less than stellar results. In one case where the programme is more successful,

David F. McFadden, executive vice president at Manchester [College, in Indiana], said the college is pleased with the response [to their “Fast Forward” programme] and doesn’t anticipate the program ever becoming standard for everyone. Because students must apply to the college for four years — and then be identified as having potential for Fast Forward — the college has a lot of control over who receives the opportunity. McFadden said that the ideal students not only are well prepared and disciplined academically, but generally need to have a good sense of their college goals coming in.

Those who are touting a three-year degree as a compromise for the less academically-committed student might want to take heed. Also interesting to note: students who attend AP programmes do not, in general, graduate any sooner than do other students, thought they do have a higher rate of graduation.

Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy who has been studying European higher education … questioned whether the focus on three years would help the students most in need of help. The three-year model is based on full-time enrollment, he noted. The population growing more quickly — and more in need of additional institutional support — is made up of part-time students, he said. Colleges should focus on their needs, even if they will take much longer than traditional students to graduate. “Life is not necessarily an easy road to a bachelor’s degree,” he said. Most students can’t take a full-time course load, let alone more, Adelman added. “If you want to improve graduation rates, three-year degrees are counterproductive.”

He characterized the push for three years as coming from those whose ideas about higher ed amount to: “get it over with and get it over with fast.”

… A more common high school curriculum and limited expectations about general education, [Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers] said, are key to the three-year approach.

In other words, focused training rather than broad, transferable, education. Predicated on the primary goal of efficiency, and not necessarily even meeting that.

[Read the whole article.]

[And be sure to read the comments to this post.]

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2 Comments
  1. February 23, 2009 9:30 am

    I’ll probably blog this myself, but have to say that the people pushing for shorter degree time seem to be ignoring several things. Most of my students work — the 4-year model, and the shorter models in parts of Europe, are based on students not working. Most of my students don’t have the skills to do college-level work when they walk in the door — I spend a lot of my time on assignments that help to bring their writing skills up. I am not sure what I can do about their reading, but I end up defining a lot of words. Not hard words, mind you — but I had to explain what a monarch was to a senior student in my intro class (the student was in a profesionnal programme, and was finally finishing up the ‘non-important’ liberal arts general ed classes).

    We have athletes. Athletes take minumum loads during the season, and then have to double up in the off-season.

    Many of our students fail courses and repeat.

    A three-year model is based on the idea that we are dealing with well-prepared students who focus on academics first, and who pass all their classes at first go. Would I be happy if I could walk into class as I did, with the expectation that the students had done the reading and would synthesise it with the different material we covered in class? Absolutely. But I don’t see that happening at any but the most elite universities.

  2. terry permalink
    February 23, 2009 9:34 am

    Great. Two-tiered degree programs within the same educational facility so as to separate the “ins” from the “outs”. This could prove helpful in instances where blatant nepotism would appear gauche.
    I’m not implying that those enrolled in such an ‘efficient’ BA program would abuse use it in order to:
    a.) rush to acquire real world experience
    b.) garner a diploma that somehow was appreciated as ‘elite’
    but the opportunity for abuses would become more normal and taken for granted. Even if it were not directly, the believe that the expedited program trumps the regular program would be implied.
    If the teaching methods proposed here are in the realm of some pedagogic breakthrough, this should of course be celebrated. But in all likelihood- it is just being suggested as a means to legitimize further Credentialism for occupations that do not require specified training in the first place.
    I think this could have the potential to turn BA+ programs into Ba- programs.

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