Why not a three–year college degree?

There is a consensus that the desperate plight of higher education finances in Colorado calls not for tinkering around the edges but a radical re-examination of basic premises. The traditional solution of “Give Them More Money” is simply not an option given the perilous condition of the state and national economy.

One proposal under consideration is the creation of more three-year bachelor’s programs as a means of achieving significant savings for students, parents, colleges, and taxpayers. Before opining on the virtues of this idea it would useful to reflect on where the notion of a “four year degree” came from and also what usages are found in other nations.

In 1636 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony established Harvard as America’s first college they naturally looked to Oxford and Cambridge as models, and at that time both institutions viewed four years as a general norm for acquiring a bachelor’s degree. So, Harvard followed suit as did William and Mary (1696), Yale (1702), and subsequently virtually every American institution offering a Bachelor’s Degree.

Then in the 17th century the British Parliament- experiencing a “budget gap” – directed Oxford and Cambridge to redesign their bachelor’s programs so that they could be successfully delivered in three years instead of four.

Despite some protests they complied and created a highly credible three year bachelor’s program that has served their nation very well ever since.

On this latter point I can offer some personal testimony. Following my “four year American degree”,I was a graduate student at Oxford, and the University of London. Any illusion I had that my “extra year” gave me an edge quickly proved unfounded. My relative deficiencies in speaking and writing the Queen’s English and my comparatively shallow store of general knowledge proved conclusively that while I had a longer undergraduate education, my English peers usually had better ones; Ever since I have found the important issue of educational quantity vs. quality to be riveting.

Had the United States at least held the line at four years the current financial crisis would not be quite so dire, however as recently reported by Newsweek magazine, the average time of completion for a bachelor’s degree has ballooned to an astounding six years and seven months. For an in-state student at the University of Colorado spending $20,000 annually the difference between four and six and a half years amounts to around $50,000 not to mention the many thousands more that the state must pay in additional higher education subsidies.

So, what explains this dramatic expansion of completion time. The reasons are as varied as the students themselves but those most frequently cited are unavailability of required courses, fewer students taking a demanding course load each year, and the attractiveness of the non-academic aspects of college life.

The main reason is that higher education authorities allowed it to happen because it greatly increased their revenues and opportunities for discretionary spending.

Many years ago a President of Oberlin College- Frederick Jackson Starr- in a much noted speech to college administrators stated that compelling reasons of equity and economics required that U.S. institutions should emulate the rest of the English speaking world and many other countries by making a quality three year bachelor’s program widely available. His peers generally viewed this as heresy and the criticism that descended upon Starr was immense. Similar voices subsequently fell silent.

There is no question that the much feared revenue reductions entailed by three year programs could be matched by proportional reductions in expenditures presuming capable management prepared to make decisive choices. Clearly a three year degree is not for most students- for some four years remains a stretch- but simple equity demands that an approach that has long been a successful norm in other countries should at the very least be an option at all institutions offering the bachelor’s program.

Today when spiraling higher education costs are breaking the financial backs of many middle class families, and slamming the door outright on countless poor and minority students the existence of a three year option could be the difference in getting or not getting that degree which is an increasingly vital passport to a better 21st century future.


Centennial Fellow William Moloney was Colorado Education Commissioner from 1997 to 2007. His columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

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