A Reconsideration of the Three-Year Degree

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist

In this morning’s InsideHigherEd.com, Emma Whitford writes about “A New Push to Create a 3-Year Degree Option.” In it, she quotes work by Penn Research Bob Zemsky and University of Minnesota researcher Lori Carrell on work they are doing on this issue. As Zemsky is quoted, “We did not ask people to commit to doing a three-year degree. That’s just not the way higher ed works.” (The Swail Letter posted an opinion piece by former GWU president Steve Trachtenberg and Gerry Kauvar on the three-year degree in 2012 and I’ve written about it as recently as 2018)

Zemsky and Carrell have partnered with a handful of institutions to conduct a trial on three-year BA degrees, a departure from the fairly concrete rule of 120 credit hours over eight semesters, typically a four-year period. The 120-credit hour rule is there, in large part, due to accreditation agencies requiring 120 credit hours for a four-year bachelor’s degree. But even beyond that, higher education is built around the four-year cycle. We have even named each of the years. In Canada, when I went to university, the years were simply known as first, second, third, and fourth year; in the US they are known as freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. All of this, though, makes little sense when so many students reside in the ‘in between’ status, having been enrolled long enough to be considered, for instance, a junior, but not enough passable/completed credits to be considered at that level. This has become more the norm than the outlier at the four-year level, with an average degree completion time of 5.1 years for a four-year degree (2016, National Student Clearinghouse).

Some people believe that out 120 credit hour system is a hold out from a time when mostly liberal arts degrees were awarded, which focused on a myriad of disciplines, including reading, writing, mathematics (the ‘three Rs’), history, and science to create a “well-rounded individual.” Some believed that the convergence of students with disparate interests in the same courses helps develop a more robust and interesting education dynamic. There is nothing to suggest this isn’t true.

Part of the challenge is that our students, overall, are not adequately prepared for this level of liberal arts because the K12 system isn’t largely successful trying to do the same thing. High schools certainly require students to take a liberal education, including English, Composition, and History or Science, but many students do not learn to have an interest in many of these areas and simply do their best to get past them. The 2021 Tik-Tokers aren’t quite into Shakespeare perhaps the way other generations were (truth be told, a lot of students could never connect with Shakespeare, but we continue to require it for the “well roundedness”). Once these students matriculate to college, they often find that they are required to, once again, go through the act again of ‘getting through’ certain courses in order to gain a degree in their area of focus. In addition, colleges add on other courses, including physical education requirements, which, in the end, cost students time and money.

On one hand we want all students to have a well-rounded education. But on the other, at what cost (let alone defining “well rounded”)? The Zemsky/Carrell study focuses on 13 pilot institutions to try a three-year program, which isn’t simply stuffing 120 credit hours in a three-year window, but rather, reducing the program down to approximately 90 credit hours. One of the main reasons, they say, is to reduce the cost to students and parents. Student debt is a major discussion area and we’ve often discussed the trillions in outstanding debt associated to higher education in The Swail Letter. There are, however, other costs including in obtaining a degree, including the opportunity cost from not working while going to school. Cost surely matters, but it may not be the best reason for reducing the length to degree.

Complicating this effort is a recent phenomena known as “upcredentialing.” The BBC recently wrote this practice of requiring more education than is required for current employees of the same position. The BBC piece cited a recent study by the Harvard Business School that found that 67 percent of production supervisor job postings required a college degree while only 16 percent of current employees in those titles had an earned bachelor’s degree (2021, BBC). Thus, a 51 percent upcredentialing gap. A similar analysis by Burning Glass found that the gap for managers was 26 percent while the gap for executive secretaries was 46 percent, meaning that while only 19 percent of current executive secretaries had a BA, 65 percent of job postings in that area required a BA (2014, Burning Glass).

The challenge also is exhibited in the return to a bachelor’s degree. Less than half (47 percent) of college graduates say that their education was “very useful” in preparing them for the workforce. Of these, 55 percent of BA grads said it did compared to 49 percent of two-year degree recipients and 69 percent of grad students (2014, Pew Research). In terms of financial returns, the wage premium of a bachelor’s degree has been often touted. In reality, the return depends largely on where students go rather than if they go. One report found that the payoff for as many as one quarter of four-year institutions was negative (2015, The New Yorker).

The philosophical question remains about two numbers in particular: why four; why 120? And can it be done appropriately in less time?

This is an interesting dilemma for higher education. Is it better to get more students through faster, more focused on a vocational track while omitting certain liberal arts courses (as many as 10 courses to get to 90 credit hours)? Or do we remain committed to the four-year endeavor—because it must be good if so many of us did it—in order to keep students more well rounded?

My view is that perhaps we wouldn’t be in this conversation if the country had taken seriously the needs of sub-degree programs and put more investment into vocational arts and apprenticeships. Even with hundreds of community colleges around the country, we have largely shunned the idea of a sub-BA universe. In our desire to create castes or separators between socio-economic groups (because that is one of the most defining outcome in higher education), we have ill-considered the needs of society in place of the self-serving needs of the higher education system.

Thus, I believe we should be giving leverage to the two-year associates degree and the other certificate programs that are typically shorter in length. For the four-year degree programs, no matter what we do, there will be the haves and the have nots. Even if we clearly define the three-year degree—which I subscribe to in theory and practice—the “better” students at the “better” institutions will have their residential four-year experience. And they will hang their collective hats on that rack for entire careers. Even now, we perceive the veracity and quality of higher education degree by institution type and sector, and prominence. We even diversify by method of teaching. Online can’t be as good as didactic, in person learning; Ivy League schools must be better than state schools; doctoral granting schools must be better than regular four-year institutions; and four-year institutions must be better than two-year schools. Add one more: non-profit schools must be better than for-profit schools.

All of those statements are biased by our experiences as well as what we are told. And while we understand they aren’t always right, they are often correct. I’m pretty sure that the education at Brown and Penn is pretty decent. I’d hope so, in consideration of the robust tuition charges at those institutions. But I also know there are great, good, and poor instructors at every institution: literally a bell curve of instructor ability and talent in all places.

My worry is that the three-year degree allow traditional programs and colleges to differentiate their programs by length and perceived quality, rather than what is learned. Thus, I believe a move towards competency-based formats will help right-value these perceptions. If we can do that, they we can start moving away from the perfunctory limits of accreditation agencies in terms of credit hours and length.

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