Colleges Weighing 3-Year Degrees to Save Undergrads Time, Money
Saturday, May 23, 2009
In an era when college students commonly take longer than four years to get a bachelor's degree, some U.S. schools are looking anew at an old idea: slicing a year off their undergraduate programs to save families time and money.
Advocates of a three-year undergraduate degree say it would work well for ambitious students who know what they want to study. Such a program could provide the course requirements for a major and some general courses that have long been the hallmark of American education.
The four-year bachelor's degree has been the model in the United States since the first universities began operating before the American Revolution. Four-year degrees were designed in large part to provide a broad-based education that teaches young people to analyze and think critically, considered vital preparation to participate in the civic life of American democracy.
The three-year degree is the common model at the University of Cambridge and Oxford University in England, and some U.S. schools have begun experimenting with the idea. To cram four years of study into three, some will require summer work, others will shave course lengths and some might cut the number of credit hours required.
"It will not be easy to produce a low-cost, high-quality three-year curriculum for a college degree, but now is the time to try," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former education secretary and a past president of the University of Tennessee, told a group of educators this year. "Today's economic crisis and tight budgets are the best time to innovate and change."
But critics said they fear that an undergraduate's academic and social experience would be compromised by shortening it to three years. College would tilt more toward job training and away from the broad-based education many U.S. schools have offered.
"Most high governmental officials who speak of education policy seem to conceive of education in this light -- as a way to ensure economic competitiveness and continued economic growth," said Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard University. "I strongly disagree with this approach."
Others point to failed experiments with the model. Only five students chose a three-year program at Upper Iowa University when it was offered several years ago, and all ultimately decided to stay for four years.
But discussions among educators and students about what constitutes a 21st-century college education in the information age increasingly include talk about how the economic downturn is making it more difficult for families to afford college -- and about how schools must be more creative in assisting them.
Many students have extended their undergraduate stays for a variety of reasons, including the need to work to pay high tuitions.
The most recent statistics from the Education Department, from 2001, show that 4.2 percent of U.S. undergraduates finished with bachelor's degrees in three years, 57.3 percent graduated in four years and 38.5 percent took more than four years to graduate.
A new survey conducted by Junior Achievement and the Allstate Foundation found that 55 percent of teens had changed their college plans because of the economy.