Four years of college seems an appropriate time for the leavening of the young. They arrive on campus in various states of glee, fear, confusion, and hope. Four years later, many, perhaps even most, walk confidently across a stage to receive a diploma from the college president. Society is thus assured that these young men and women are capable of wisely voting, serving on a jury, and holding down a job.
College is 120 credits: That’s eight semesters at 15 credits per semester, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. And it’s pricey: For the academic year just ended, public four-year colleges charged for tuition and fees, on average, $6,585 (up 6.4 percent from last year), and private four-year colleges cost $25,143 (up 5.9 percent from last year) for the same. Now add up to $10,000 for room and board. In a recession, that’s tough for many students and their families to afford.
Hence the recent surge in colleges touting three-year degrees. Save money, they promise. Get a head start on life, they say.
Don’t bet on it. Three-year degrees short-change both the student and society.
Colleges do not need to formally offer three-year degrees. An astute prospective student who studies the curriculum requirements of the universities she is considering can figure out how to finish in three years. A good academic adviser can help.
In my 13 years of advising journalism students, I’ve had only two finish their undergraduate degree in three years — and both stayed to complete their master’s degrees in a fourth year. I’ve had a few dozen finish in seven semesters instead of eight.
These students took advantage of Advanced Placement courses in high school for which they were awarded college credit. Generally, a student who shows up at my university as a journalism major with 15 to 18 credits from AP exams (and those have to be major-appropriate credits) may easily finish in seven semesters, saving nearly $20,000. Add in a few 18-credit semesters and summer school, and she’s out in six, saving nearly $40,000. (Another issue: Is AP exam credit truly the equivalent of a college course?)
So I drew up a three-year journalism degree program. Even assuming no incoming AP or college credit, a student could finish it in three years and two summers. Oh — she’ll have to fit in those 400 internship hours, too.
A three-year degree is a bad idea for all but the most focused and mature of incoming freshmen. However, as the cost of higher education climbs at two to three times the rate of inflation, more colleges are pitching it to potential students. But if those colleges assert that the three-year degree is of the same quality as the four-year degree, they’re misleading their market.
Cramming 120 credits into three years reduces the time necessary for that leavening of the young. A steady diet of 18 credits plus summer school reduces the time available for reflection and meditation on what’s been learned. And three-year students miss out on a helluva lotta fun. My dean tells freshmen at orientation: “If you don’t have fun in college, you’ve failed college. It’s all about wisely balancing academics and fun.”
Proponents of three-year degrees argue that students get a “head start.” On what? Life? That’s specious, given increased life expectancy. The work force?
How does a potential employer — or graduate school admissions board — distinguish between a three-year degree holder and a four-year graduate? GPAs may be the same. Holders of degrees with 120 credits will have a major and probably a minor.
But if the freshman arriving with AP and college credits stays a fourth year, perhaps she’ll walk across the stage with two majors and two minors or a dual degree (bachelor’s and master’s) or one major and three minors.
She will likely have earned 135 to 142 credits. She will be more marketable than others on the stage with her because she will be far more accomplished. She will be easily distinguished from her peers.
It’s frustrating to see colleges turning to three-year degrees as a marketing tool to maintain or increase enrollments by dangling a money-saving carrot in front of hard-pressed families. It’s not necessarily colleges’ fault; after all, other factors driving tuition and fee increases are outside their control.
The American value system so far has not viewed reducing college costs as a principal route to economic stability (or national security). At all levels of education — primary, secondary, post-secondary — a national consensus has failed to emerge that places bailing out a flawed educational system on par with bailing out General Motors.