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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *