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Six Reasons Why the Three-Year Degree is a Terrible Idea

In September 2013, I was invited to conduct a workshop on “Transforming Higher Education for the Digital Age” at a Carnegie Institute symposium on The Future of Higher Education.  After the session that was full of innovative ideas, a dean from one of the larger University of California campuses stopped me and rather triumphantly announced, “We’re on the verge of implementing the most radical idea of all.  Our university is going to a three-year degree.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

This week, I keynoted the President’s Institute of the Council on Independent Colleges, a thoughtful, dedicated, action-oriented organization of hundreds of presidents of liberal arts colleges around the US and the world.  I presented a workshop here, too, on transformative ideas for leading change in higher education.  At the end of the session, one president said, “California is about to reduce the four-year degree to a three-year degree.  It’s the only thing Democrats, Republicans, the President, and the Governor all agree on. Do you think that’s a good idea?”

My answer was the same in both instances.  No.  I do not think it is a good idea.  Not at all.

Bottom line:  I do not believe in the intrinsic worth of the four-year degree.  Why in the world would I think arbitrarily making it a three-year degree would be an improvement? 

If I send back my restaurant dinner because some ingredients are stale or even moldy, I am not going to be satisfied if my waiter returns my plate with a quarter of the meal cut away.  Less of something bad doesn’t make it good.  Period.

There is no logic by which cutting a year off the present college education gets to the heart of the problem, solves the problem, saves student tuition dollars, or prepares the next generation to cope with the incredibly complex, problematic, and unequal world they have inherited and soon will have to lead.

Divorcing competency from “seat time” makes sense to me.  There are many wise, thoughtful ways for some students in some fields to speed up their passage through the undergraduate curriculum and we have thoughtful traditional and thoughtful new ways of evaluating competency that could make this work.  That’s controversial, bold, and smart transformation.  It’s the waiter bringing back a new, fresh, well-prepared dinner.

Lopping off a quarter of a faulty system is an abdication of responsibility and common sense.  And it won’t work either.  Once we see it for what it actually is, we parents, students, and professors—we taxpayers—will feel more cheated than ever and we’ll send it back again.


Here are some reasons why the three-year plan is just plain wrong.

1. An arbitrary three-year degree creates havoc with any ideal of excellence, accomplishment, or competency.  Not all fields take the same amount of time to master. Some areas of study might well require three years, some two, others five. You probably cannot become a Biblical historian without learning four or five distinct languages in addition to a lot of history.  You cannot be a biomedical engineer without mastering the basics of biology, computational and statistical sciences, and engineering.

2. An arbitrary three-year degree turns graduate and professional school into remedial advanced training programs.  Do you want your brain surgeon to have graduated from Berkeley from the first three-year pre-med class?  To arbitrarily decide degrees are three years means that the whole structure of graduate school and professional school in several fields will have to be changed for a kind of advanced, remedial education.  You are simply transferring more of the educational cost burden to the most expensive part of the system—graduate and professional schools.

3. An arbitrary three-year degree that makes the cuts at the general educational level deprives us of the chance to rethink all the forms of digital, cultural, and cross-cultural fluency necessary to thrive in our world of constant change.  Project Oxygen, Google’s massive study of all of its own hiring, firing, and promotion data, showed that advancement, even within Google, is not about technical expertise and specialization but about the ability to connect through a range of skills requiring psychological (empathic) skills, communication skills, deep cultural and crosscultural interpersonal knowledge, analytical skills, aesthetic skills, project and time management skills, critical thinking, creative problem solving, and the other basics that should be at the heart of a refurbished, rethought, and even expanded general education for the world we live in now.   Why do you read literature?  Ask Mark Zuckerberg!  He’s now having the world read a book—a book! Imagine that!—every two weeks and discuss it in a giant online book club.  You read books because they teach you something deep and lasting about the world.  Same for all of those things that people who do not deeply understand the complex social demands of our technologies dismiss as “irrelevant,” as “the humanities.”  No. These are survival skills.  Do.Not.Cut.Them.

4. An arbitrary three-year degree will end in the courts and cost far more money in the long run and then it will fail.  There are labor issues for faculty here, and fairness and learning issues for the children of taxpayers who graduated in 2020 instead of 2000.  Why am I not getting the benefits of a full education here when my dad did?

5. An arbitrary three-year degree robs us of the opportunity to really re-envision and transform higher education for the world we live in now.  You cannot change one major aspect of a university without thinking through how it will change the whole ecosystem of learning.   Again the restaurant analogy holds:  I don’t want you taking the moldy bits off my plate and saying now my dinner is just fine.   No.  It needs to be remade for the complexities of the world we live in. We can do that.    Anyone who argues that higher education won’t change because it hasn’t in 2000 years since Socrates strode through the Greek Academy does not know history.  Almost all of the apparatus of our current system of higher education was designed specifically for the demands of the last  Information Age, the Industrial Era of mass printing, the telegraph, the assembly line, the Model T.   Basically, from 1865 to 1925 the Puritan system of education in America is transformed to the modern research university.   One of the leaders was Charles Eliot who presided over Harvard from 1869 to 1909.  Here’s a list of what was instituted at Harvard under Eliot’s forty-year reign: majors, minors, divisions, electives; choice of professor, elective course choices, optional attendance policy; secularization, professionalization; graduate school, collegiate law school, nursing school, graduate school of education, collegiate business school; Harvard Annex for women (later Radcliffe College); degree requirements, grades, certification; competitive scholarships, financial aid, college entrance exams, a capital fundraising campaign; tenure, sabbaticals, faculty pensions, school rankings; courses added in new subjects including natural history, algebra, laboratory physics, geometry, modern languages, American archeology, and anthropology; an end to compulsory prayer (the first American institution of higher education to do so).

I don’t have to explain what a single item on that list is because it’s the world we live in now.

It’s an impressive list.  And the most important part is that it isn’t just but a systematic rethinking of how all the parts of education intermesh with a vision of society and how the seperate parts must be all thought together with a consistent vision of society and social good and future responsibilities all in mind.

Notably, there is one thing absent from this list:  the three-year degree.   Eliot advocated moving Harvard from a four to a  three-year degree. But not even Eliot was able to convince his colleagues, students, parents, or donors that a three-year degree was a good idea.   The most common rationale Eliot’s opponents offered against the idea of the three-year degree was maturation.

6. An arbitrary three-year degree shortcuts a rite of passage into mature, responsible adulthood. Not all of the 21 million students in college today are traditional age; a third, in fact, are over 25.  However, in the U.S. system, traditionally, you send your child to college and they come out an adult. Many of our policy decisions about higher education are made with this implicit model of maturation.  Seventeen year olds apply to college.  They are dependent, minors, adolescents, not wholly formed.  They reach their maturity during their college years.  They become adults.  They graduate at 22 different people than they were when they went to college.  Anyone who has seen a child go through college or who has been a student knows what a miraculous transformation it is.   There is nothing like it.   It is the reason why, despite all the problems in U.S. education, despite our terrible test scores that would seem to say we are not smart, not good at educating our young, all that, well, the elite of the world send their kids to U.S. universities if they can.  The balance tips substantially in our direction.   Do we arbitrarily want to change the process by which Americans, for hundreds of years now, have marked a passage into a kind of adulthood for the educated middle class that will shape our future? 

I do not believe that is a rhetorical question.  The three-year degree is a farce. It’s irresponsible and ineffective.  Less of a bad thing is not a good thing.  Waiter! Waiter! Take this plate away.

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So how do we solve the current problem?   The bottom line is we must reinvest in higher education.  There is much we can do to cut costs in the system in a wise way, but no amount of cutting makes up for the drastically diminished revenue of the last decades.

California once had a master plan by which it educated the top third of all of its high school graduates at minimal cost in either the University of California or the California State University system.  It was, arguably, once the greatest public university system in the country.  It is also where the systematic defunding of public higher education began some five decades ago.  Governor Ronald Reagan’s “revolution” was waged overtly against the University of California at Berkeley and public education more completely, as a bastion, he believed, of liberalism and therefore anti-government values.   As Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal note in “From Master Plan to No Plan,” their powerful study of what has happened to public higher education in California: “The portion of the shrinking general fund that could go to expanding public institutional capacity has decreased [in California] from around 17 to 10 percent since the late 1970s.  For every $1,000 of personal income in California, the state invested only $7.71 for higher education in 2008, about 40 percent below the $12.86 invested as late as 1980.

Look at California’s state budget and you see almost a flip flop, with the amount of taxpayer dollars formerly invested in public education now funding the prison system, what geographer Ruth Gilmore has called California’s “Golden Gulag.”

Is that what we want?  Continue to invest in prisons, lop off a quarter of the educational system once regarded as the finest in the world?  It’s a choice.  I hope we make the right one.


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