Liberal Education

The Three-Year Degree: An Idea Whose Time Will Pass

As the leader of the nation’s only campus dedicated exclusively to early college, I head an institution that ensures students graduate sooner than the national average. As an academic who pursued my graduate work at Oxford University—an institution that confers most of its undergraduate degrees in three years—I have had direct observation of a successful model of a three-year degree program. Thus, I seem a likely candidate to embrace the recently touted argument for the three-year bachelor’s degree. And yet I have grave doubts about establishing the three-year college degree as the new American standard.

These doubts are based on three broad concerns: first, the argument for a three-year degree has, to date, been driven by financial but not by educational objectives; second, there is a very real danger that such proposals can undermine the already threatened core liberal arts; and third, such proposals circumscribe the breadth and depth of learning, as well as the intellectual and social development of students, that are central to a college education. It is not hard to understand the attractiveness of an elusive silver bullet for college costs, however unlikely it is that such simple answers exist. Higher education can be costly, many states and campuses are in the midst of drastic budget shortfalls, and families hit hard by the recession are increasingly anxious about paying for college.

We need to remember that families are anxious about paying for college because it is a highly valued asset that they feel, rightly, is crucial to opportunity. In the process of addressing issues of cost, then, we must not erode the basis for the value of higher education; we must not only secure access, but also provide access to something of meaning.

This is not to dismiss concerns about the cost of higher education. Like most other colleges, my campus has wrestled with competing priorities and a genuine desire to provide both access and quality. And I have written extensively on the subject of finances in higher education. But it is important that educational mission and the question of quality be central to any discussion of cost reduction. To date, the three-year degree options do not address this issue.

Over the past decade, and particularly over the past few years, colleges and universities have used creative, albeit often painful, methods to maintain quality while reducing budgets. Most have made these changes while attempting to preserve the academic core. New methods of educational delivery are being explored, and they may open new avenues for student learning and possible savings, including options for different times to degree. And certainly access to courses in reasonable sequence and the ability to take classes required for degree attainment are efficiencies that we should rightly expect of our institutions.

But the reality is that the core work of higher education, the work of student learning, is not efficient. The process of discovery, reflection, integration, and intellectual growth are as complex as each individual who enrolls in college. They require not just access to knowledge, but the development of intellectual capacity and new habits of mind. They require time. Proposals for saving money do not need to preserve all extant systems, but they must honor the reality of the student learning process.

Which leads to my second concern about the three-year degree proposals, a concern for the place of the liberal arts in such a model. Liberal education is meant to be, quite simply, education that liberates—liberates us from the constraints of our own limited experience, liberates us from prejudice, liberates us from the folly of reactivity without analysis, and liberates us from the allure of hubris as a substitute for knowledge. Liberal education is grounded in the idealistic but historically justified belief that through engaged learning, students can fully develop their own abilities and more completely contribute to society.

This is much more than education for gainful employment. Yet as Elaine Hansen, president of Bates College, has written, the skills acquired through a liberal education are necessary in the job market.

As we often say and can effectively demonstrate . . . any major in the liberal arts and sciences trains you for nothing and prepares you for everything. It is increasingly evident that the analytical, critical, and interpersonal skills fostered in the liberal arts college environment in general and in the humanities in particular are essential for people who will change jobs many times in their lives, pursuing careers and making contributions in fields and disciplines that at present we cannot even name. (Hansen 2006, 10)

While President Hansen was speaking particularly from the perspective of a liberal arts college, her point is relevant for the role of the liberal arts in all of higher education.

At its best, regardless of the type of institution, a bachelor’s degree should not only indicate a level of mastery in a specific discipline or field. The bachelor’s degree should also signal that students have developed skills of critical inquiry, writing and close reading, analysis and intellectual rigor. To be educated is to have the ability not only to do certain things, but also to think in creative ways, to understand the cultural, political, or historical context for major questions, to carry the skills of inquiry and analysis into the world.

If we believed the pursuit of specific, employable skills was the primary purpose of higher education, then the bachelor’s degree would cease to exist. We would not confer degrees; we would train for certificates, and students would return for more training each time they changed jobs or professions. A bachelor’s degree must signal the achievement of something beyond technical skills, or it ceases to have meaning.

Finally, I have concerns about three-year degree proposals because of the nature of contemporary education. The growth of technology, the reality of internationalization, and the breadth of information necessary for reasoned judgments in our society is expanding, not contracting. While it is specious to argue that higher education is capable of offering students all the information they will ultimately need, it is entirely reasonable to expect higher education to introduce students to a broad range of knowledge that captures the complexity and rapid evolution of information. It is reasonable to expect students to have a basic understanding not only of Western democracies but also of other forms of government, to speak more than one language, to appreciate different avenues of expression and different cultures, to have a core scientific literacy, and to have acquired a level of sophistication in at least one discipline. It is reasonable, but it is not efficient.

In addition to the time required for such learning, the social and emotional development of traditional-age students is a significant function of higher education. We know that students learn best when they discuss intellectual ideas outside as well as inside of class. We know that education is most effective when it involves active learning. And we know that involvement in activities beyond the academic develops skills not easily taught in the classroom. To focus on shortening the time to degree misses a core aspect of college education: the process of identity formation and learning to live and work effectively within a larger community.

A three-year option

But what of my own background? What about my experience leading an early college and attending graduate school at an institution that awards three-year degrees? Surprisingly, both of these experiences reinforce rather than negate my concerns about the three-year degree.

Few would argue that the value of an Oxford bachelor’s degree is less than that of a degree obtained in the United States because it is attained in three years instead of four. Yet Oxford benefits from crucial distinctions between the British and American models of precollegiate education, and its students arrive well prepared for college. And despite the overall shorter time to degree, Oxford is gloriously inefficient in its use of the tutorial system, college housing system, plethora of high-profile student activities, and extensive time between terms.
Similarly, the goal of early college as practiced at Bard College at Simon’s Rock is not to save money or to make education more efficient. It is to contribute to one of the great strengths of American higher education: diversity of opportunity. Early college is not an ideal option for all young people. But for those intellectually curious students who are motivated and who are not well served by their existing schooling, early college is a profoundly important educational avenue.

Similarly, there is nothing wrong with colleges and universities offering an option for a three-year degree. It can be a valuable alternative for some students. My concern is with the proposal to standardize this model. In fact, proponents of the three-year degree have specifically argued against introducing the three-year degree as one of many options, stating that this model would add, rather than reduce, costs.

If we are to take the three-year degree proposals at face value and consider this model as the new standard for obtaining bachelor’s degrees in the United States, then we must answer questions besides those of efficiency and cost. We must act as academic leaders and answer questions of educational merit. To date, the three-year degree proposals have failed to address these questions—questions that are at the core of the academic mission of colleges and universities.


Hansen, Elaine. 2006. “The Situation of the Humanities.” Association of Departments of Foreign Languages Bulletin 37 (2–3): 10–14.

Mary B. Marcy is provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

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