Are 3 years enough?

The governor has language in the new Ohio budget bill that has universities in Ohio providing a clear pathway to a baccalaureate degree in three years. It is certainly understandable why a three year degree pathway might be attractive to some students and state officials – college is not inexpensive, and this helps achieve the priority goal of college affordability.

This is not a new idea. There have been discussions about three year degrees for a long time, with more emphasis beginning in 1991. The President of Oberlin proposed the idea in an op-ed piece in the NY Times. It gained more traction recently as former Department of Education secretary Lamar Alexander spoke and wrote about the need to take a hard look at this concept.

The main debate about this idea settles into discussions about the way that a 3-year degree program is configured. One idea, albeit not a popular one among academics (and accreditation bodies), is to eliminate some credit hour requirements, such as general education requirements, to reduce the total credit hours to a level that they can be done in three years instead of four. Another approach, also not so appealing, is to require more credit hours each term, with maybe some additional credit hours in the summer, to complete all of the four year requirements in the three year period.

Still another approach, in fact one that can presently be done, is to complete many of the degree requirements while still in high school. Ohio has several programs (Senior to Sophomore, PSEO, dual enrollment or Early College programs) that allow a high school student to take college level classes before graduation. Advanced Placement courses are another way that a student can arrive at the university with completed material that can be assigned college credit.

OK, so the requirements can be completed in three years after high school graduation. That isn’t my biggest concern. (Having said that, I am concerned that the learning takes place out of the classroom or lab environment, without the interactions between faculty and student or student and peer group, or that the rigor that is expected of a college class might not be there.) My concern is more about what a student gives up in order to get into the workforce more quickly.

If we assume that the preferred pathway is paved with credits obtained in high school, I am concerned about the high school experience that must give way to the requirements associated with the completion of the college credits. Not to mention that I have my doubts that most high school students are mature enough or prepared to make the very import decision about what their career will be, and what courses are important and relevant to the major that will get him or her there.

My biggest concern , though, is what isn’t experienced at college. As I mentioned recently in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, we know what employers are looking for from our graduates. They want people who can think through problems, find creative approaches or solutions to these problems, communicate them effectively, and who can interact with others in and out of their organizations in an effective way. These critical thinking skills, these problem-solving skills, and these interpersonal interaction skills come from teamwork, collaborative activities, and living with other people, experiencing the highs and lows of personal relationships, and working closely with mentors, such as the advisers, faculty, student-life directors, etc. We want to provide more of these kinds of experiences, not fewer. Co-curricular activities, leadership opportunities and experiences, athletic involvement, study abroad, service-learning activities – all are examples of the kinds of collegiate experiences that would be missed, at least 25% of them, with a 3-year college investment.

Some students will be just fine with this. Others will be challenged when they move to the next phase of their life. I have always maintained that there is more personal growth and maturity in the senior year of college than all of the previous years of education combined. That will be what a student will forfeit. I’m not sure it’s worth the financial savings.

I hope our General Assembly is paying attention as they debate the positives and negatives of these and other higher education related issues that are in the budget bill.


Earlier this week I travelled to Champaign-Urbana to the University of Illinois to meet with the Undergraduate Deans from the CIC (Big-10) schools, and to attend a conference on transferring to a four-year institution. I learned a lot about the issues facing a student moving from the experience of a two-year community college program to the often overwhelming environment of a school like Ohio State. I also learned that the economic challenges that we are facing in Ohio, and the potential impact on higher education, are challenges that our sister colleges in the Big 10 are facing as well, and in some cases are already part of their reality.

When I was leaving to come home, I had to wait at the University of Illinois Willard Airport for my flight. If you’ve never been in that airport, it is an experience… it is a new building with 2 gates, with flights only to O’Hare, Dallas and Detroit. And not many of them, it turns out. I followed the restaurant/bar sign, and it led me to a line of four vending machines. But they have free wireless, and I had no problem finding a seat, since there were only four of us waiting for the commuter plane.

While I was waiting, I couldn’t help overhearing a cell-phone conversation between a young woman and her mother. She was a student at UI and was traveling to check out a graduate school assistantship opportunity at the University of Colorado. It seems that her mother had sent her a package to the wrong address… actually she sent it to the apartment complex, but hadn’t put the apartment unit number on the label.

After ending the call, she started a conversation with me by apologizing for talking so loudly. Her frustration with her mother centered on the idea that her mother just didn’t get the complexity of her life at college. She laughed when she told me that she was from a really small Illinois town, and the concept of an apartment with more than one unit was absolutely foreign to her mother.

Our conversation turned to the fact that she was a first-generation college student, and her feeling was that this was the reason that there was no understanding of her experience at college. I asked her what the other important misunderstandings were, and she launched into a Letterman-esque Top-10 list of questions that tell the story: 10. Why can’t you go to a college closer to home? 9. Why can’t you continue to date your high school boyfriend (who didn’t go to college)? 8. There are no classes on the weekend, so why can’t you come home? 7. Are you sure you want to be friends with those foreigners on campus? 6. Dad wants you to work in the store when you’re done, so why do you need that degree? 5. How will a major in Comparative and World Literature get you a job? 4. What do you mean you get course credit for working with the poor? 3. You were never stressed at home. What can possibly cause so much stress there? 2. What’s that new music you’re listening to?   1. So, you feel you’re better than us now, huh?

All of these things resonated with me… I, too am a Gen-1. I left my very small town in rural Idaho to go to college in California. My parents, my friends, and really nobody in my town had any understanding of what I was experiencing. How could they?

It was a shock for me as well. I was hardly prepared for what I encountered when I got to campus. There had never been any conversations in my house about life in college, or what to expect when I got there, or how to budget my time, or the importance of making connections with faculty, or the diversity of ideas and people I would encounter. And I too had to deal with their perception that I felt I was superior to them.

We boarded our plane, and I wished her the best. The fact that she is going to finish her degree and go to graduate school means she has cleared many of the not-so-insignificant hurdles of a Gen-1 student. But she still faces a future of explaining the intricacies of her college experiences to family and friends that may never really get it. To that, I can attest.