Magazine article Liberal Education

The Three-Year Degree: An Idea Whose Time Will Pass

Magazine article Liberal Education

The Three-Year Degree: An Idea Whose Time Will Pass

Article excerpt

As THE LEADER of the nation's only campus dedicated exclusively to early college, I head an institution that ensures students graduate sooner than the national average. As an academic who pursued my graduate work at Oxford University - an institution that confers most of its undergraduate degrees in three years - I have had direct observation of a successful model of a three-year degree program. Thus, I seem a likely candidate to embrace the recently touted argument for the three-year bachelor's degree. And yet I have grave doubts about establishing the three-year college degree as the new American standard.

These doubts are based on three broad concerns: first, the argument for a three-year degree has, to date, been driven by financial but not by educational objectives; second, there is a very real danger that such proposals can undermine the already threatened core liberal arts; and third, such proposals circumscribe the breadth and depth of learning, as well as the intellectual and social development of students, that are central to a college education.

It is not hard to understand the attractiveness of an elusive silver bullet for college costs, however unlikely it is that such simple answers exist. Higher education can be costly, many states and campuses are in the midst of drastic budget shortfalls, and families hit hard by the recession are increasingly anxious about paying for college.

We need to remember that families are anxious about paying for college because it is a highly valued asset that they feel, rightly, is crucial to opportunity. In the process of addressing issues of cost, then, we must not erode the basis for the value of higher education; we must not only secure access, but also provide access to something of meaning.

This is not to dismiss concerns about the cost of higher education. Like most other colleges, my campus has wrestled with competing priorities and a genuine desire to provide both access and quality. And I have written extensively on the subject of finances in higher education. But it is important that educational mission and the question of quality be central to any discussion of cost reduction. To date, the three-year degree options do not address this issue.

Over the past decade, and particularly over the past few years, colleges and universities have used creative, albeit often painful, methods to maintain quality while reducing budgets. Most have made these changes while attempting to preserve the academic core. New methods of educational delivery are being explored, and they may open new avenues for student learning and possible savings, including options for different times to degree. And certainly access to courses in reasonable sequence and the ability to take classes required for degree attainment are efficiencies that we should rightly expect of our institutions.

But the reality is that the core work of higher education, the work of student learning, is not efficient. The process of discovery, reflection, integration, and intellectual growth are as complex as each individual who enrolls in college. They require not just access to knowledge, but the development of intellectual capacity and new habits of mind. They require time. Proposals for saving money do not need to preserve all extant systems, but they must honor the reality of the student learning process.

Which leads to my second concern about the three-year degree proposals, a concern for the place of the liberal arts in such a model. Liberal education is meant to be, quite simply, education that liberates-liberates us from the constraints of our own limited experience, liberates us from prejudice, liberates us from the folly of reactivity without analysis, and liberates us from the allure of hubris as a substitute for knowledge. Liberal education is grounded in the idealistic but historically justified belief that through engaged learning, students can fully develop their own abilities and more completely contribute to society. …

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