Colleges Consider 3-Year Degrees

In a time when college students usually take longer than four years to get a bachelor’s degree, some United States schools have now been considering the idea of cutting a year off of the degree program to save both time and money.

Supporters of a three-year undergraduate degree say it would work well for ambitious students who know what they want to study. A three-year degree program could still provide the course requirements needed to pursue a major and some general courses that have been a basis of American education.

The four-year bachelor’s degree has generally been the model in the U.S. since the first universities began operating before the American Revolution. Four-year degrees were mostly designed to provide a broad-based education that teaches young people to analyze and think critically, considering the person’s preparation and participation in democracy. The three-year degree is currently a common model at the University of Cambridge and Oxford University in England. As a result, some U.S. schools have begun experimenting with the same idea. Cramming four years of study into three would not only involve summer work, but possibly eliminating course length, and in some cases, cutting the number of required credit hours. But some fear that shortening it would compromise an undergraduate’s academic and social experience. College would lean more toward job training and away from the inclusive education many U.S. schools have offered.

“It’s a good thing economically but there has to be a process time for learning,” said Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Dr. Beth Tyson Lofquist. “Cutting might limit the process time.”

Educators and students have been evaluating what establishes a 21st-century college education and continue to review how the economic decline is making it more difficult for families to afford college, and what schools are being forced to do to help. In opposition to the idea, some have referred to failed experiments in attempt to discredit the idea. At Upper Iowa University, only five students chose a three-year program when it was offered several years ago, and all five ended up staying for the full four years. The most recent statistics from the Education Department in 2001 showed that only 4.2 percent of U.S. undergraduates finished with bachelor’s degrees in three years while 57.3 percent graduated in four years and 38.5 percent took more than four years to graduate. Three-year programs have existed for several years at a variety of schools, including Bates College in Maine and Ball State University in Indiana. They both offer three-year degrees in about 30 areas of study.

Many students have extended their undergraduate stays for a variety of reasons, including the need to work to pay high tuitions.

The Junior Achievement and the Allstate Foundation performed a survey showing that 55 percent of teens had changed their college plans because of the current state of the economy.

When asked how a change to a three-year degree would affect a student’s budget, Lofquist stated that “the change would be less expensive for students and would cut some of their expenses, but would be basically the same prices for the institution.”

The idea has resulted in questioning of the university’s core liberal studies requirements and whether or not they are essential to a student’s college experience. Many students claim that a decrease in liberal studies would help them better focus on their major-related courses which would ultimately lead to a better knowledge of their chosen field of study. “We have to be careful not to eliminate too many requirements,” said Lofquist. On the other hand, some argue that liberal studies are valuable to the decision-making process associated with the college experience. Rising senior at Western Carolina University, Stephanie Kirk, expresses that she “think[s] some liberal studies classes are a waste of time…[and] can understand [that] math and English classes are useful for the future, but art and sciences aren’t needed. I’ll never use them.” “Liberal studies force you to learn things that you wouldn’t normally be interested in,” said senior Jennifer Beck. “Liberal studies have given me a broader perspective on what I want to do in life. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have the same major I currently do.” If liberal studies were reduced, the impact it made on students would definitely be taken into consideration. WCU Administrators have expressed concern with the possibility of cuts taking away from the importance of the courses, and are currently reviewing liberal studies. “Whether or not the classes are reduced is not the issue,” said Lofquist, “its discovering the purpose and making a program that is designed to reflect that purpose.” In many cases, college students may be undecided on their future career choices. The college experience has played a large role in helping students make these decisions, and it is being stressed that eliminating a year might diminish the aspects of college that are not centered around academics. Dealing with life and social networking are generally only learned through an experience such as college. According to Lofqusit, “if you go to college just to learn the profession, you are only minimizing what the whole experience can be.”