The Three-Year Degree Is No Silver Bullet

Thursday, June 3, 2010

President Obama has rightly challenged colleges and universities to increase dramatically the number of Americans with college degrees and to close persistent achievement gaps across racial, ethnic, and class lines. Increasing the number of students who both enter and complete college degree programs is now a top policy priority for the Obama administration. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) is on record strongly supporting this priority as well as the emerging national commitment on the part of educators at all levels (K-16 and beyond), philanthropists, and state policy leaders to develop more effective ways to prepare students for college.1

But the gap between attainment aspirations and available resources is wide and getting wider. As leaders seek ways to achieve ambitious attainment and equity goals, some have begun to ask whether the four-year degree should become a three-year degree.

The short answer to that question is no, except for a few very highly motivated, exceptionally well-prepared students.

We can tighten the curriculum, help students focus more closely on essential learning outcomes, and provide better support systems to help students achieve a high-quality college education. But we should not, as some have suggested, just shave off an entire year's worth of expected learning, either at the college level or at the high school level.

Here are the issues at play—and at stake.

The Context for Meeting the Challenge of Educating More Americans

Two factors are critical to understanding the challenge inherent in meeting the national goals for student access and degree attainment. The first relates to the financing of higher education institutions, and the second relates to the changing demands of the global knowledge economy.

Despite the commitment of some additional funds from the federal government, the institutions that provide college learning to most Americans—the nonprofit two-year and four-year colleges and universities—are coping with the profound impact of the recent economic downturn and with years of disinvestment by the states. These institutions face the daunting challenge of educating more students while crafting new financial models that will keep costs reasonable and sustainable for students and taxpayers over the long term. They also, however, have a duty to take account of the changing nature of the global economy for which they are preparing their students.

AAC&U has taken the strong stand that, even in the face of serious financial and capacity challenges, any effort to increase degree attainment and close achievement gaps must begin by answering the most fundamental educational question: what do all college students need to learn and be able to do? Multiple research studies of student learning outcomes, faculty reports, and national surveys of employers clearly show that the American educational quality shortfall is just as urgent as the attainment shortfall.2 As an association, AAC&U takes very seriously the challenge of preparing students to achieve a full range of important economic, civic, and personal goals.

AAC&U, therefore, remains committed to advancing policy and educational reforms that address both the challenge of increasing access and completion and the equally urgent challenge of maintaining—and even increasing—the levels of knowledge and skills expected of college graduates in the twenty-first century. It would be profoundly irresponsible to address either of these twin challenges in isolation. As our most recent national survey of employers made very clear, the competitive global economy itself is raising the bar for what college graduates need to know and be able to do to succeed.3 Notwithstanding the grave fiscal challenges the nation and its public and private educational institutions are now facing, the long-term success of our society depends on the quality of the learning provided to all students.

Employers are asking for more, not less. We know, for instance, that success in today’s workplace requires achievement in at least six new areas of knowledge and skill development, which have been added to the already ambitious learning portfolio required in earlier eras. In addition to asking colleges and universities to place even greater emphasis today on such traditional college learning outcomes as communications, analytic reasoning, quantitative literacy, broad knowledge of science and society, and field-specific knowledge and skills, employers are asking for more attention to the development of:

  • global knowledge and competence;
  • intercultural knowledge and skills;
  • creativity and innovation;
  • teamwork and problem-solving skills in diverse settings;
  • information literacy and fluency;
  • ethical reasoning and decision making.

None of these were central to the expected curriculum a generation ago; today, all of them are essential.

In addition, employers are urging colleges and universities to provide students with many more opportunities to apply their knowledge in real-world settings through internships, community-based research, and senior integrative and comprehensive projects. To achieve the full array of twenty-first-century learning outcomes at the levels required in today’s world, students need a significant amount of dedicated time as well as significant input and mentoring from well-prepared and well-supported educators who use proven educational practices and the latest technologies.

In short, over the last few decades, the expectations for college-level learning have grown dramatically higher. With increasing globalization, rapid technological change, and expanding intercultural challenges, the world itself is raising the bar for what college graduates need to know and be able to do.

This reality has profound implications for the development of smart educational policies going forward.

What is clear is that if we fail to create the conditions within which students can achieve a broad set of learning outcomes, we will jeopardize America’s ability to remain a global leader—both economically and diplomatically. We run the risk of further eroding American capability just at the point when the wider world is asking for more.

Unrealistic Proposals—More Damaging Than Helpful

For this reason, AAC&U is concerned about short-sighted and simplistic proposals to reduce the number of credits required to complete the bachelor’s degree. We are especially concerned about the idea—already gaining some traction in media and even policy circles—that the United States can save a significant amount of money on higher education by just cutting the number of expected years and credit hours—from, say, 120 hours to 90 hours. We also are concerned about the companion idea—now touted by some prominent leaders—that, “since the senior year in high school is wasted,” students should just skip it and proceed directly to college. Either way, students will be shortchanged, and many will end up unprepared for success.

Make no mistake, we believe that colleges and universities should be doing everything they can to move students through their degree programs as efficiently and effectively as possible. AAC&U applauds efforts to reduce students’ time to degree and to graduate more students in four years, rather than the more typical five, six, or seven years. The social benefits and actual savings would multiply if most students were to achieve the learning they need in only four years of college enrollment. But currently, only 27 percent of students in public institutions and 48 percent of those in private institutions finish college in four years.4

We also see value in the long-standing, optional programs offered by many institutions that allow a small number of highly motivated, high-achieving students to graduate in as little as three years by combining college credits earned in high school with continuous enrollment throughout the full calendar year. Such options are becoming more widely available, in both private and public higher education.

It is very important to note, however, that these existing and proposed accelerated three-year programs do not reduce the total number of credits required to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and that the existing programs do not short-circuit the full array of essential learning outcomes those credits represent. For the small number of students who want to and can meet today’s higher expectations in three calendar years rather than four academic years, this kind of flexibility is welcome and desirable.

Nonetheless, the three-year option is not a universal panacea for increasing completion or for reducing costs. It will be helpful only to a small number of students.

We urge policy makers and leaders in education and philanthropy to begin any discussions about the scope of a college degree—and the length of time recommended for most students to complete the degree—with the broader question of the learning students actually need to succeed and a realistic assessment of current students’ educational abilities and preparation.

While the pressure to graduate more students at a time of ever-decreasing resources is acute, we do a disservice to individual students and our society if we confer degrees that do not assure that students have learned all they need to know in this very demanding global century.

Two-year and four-year colleges and universities all across the country are well aware of the rising demands of the global economy. As a result, many of them have undertaken significant and far-reaching efforts to reform their curricula—including the revision of outcomes and requirements in both general education and major programs—to ensure that all students achieve the full set of learning outcomes they need. American colleges, universities, and community colleges also are working to develop the ability of their faculties to use the latest technologies and the best high-impact educational practices now available. These reforms may well result in cost savings, but they are being developed first and foremost to assure educational quality.

The Underprepared Majority

The continued development of high-impact educational practices is, in fact, more important than ever given how many students arrive on college campuses unprepared for college-level work. We know from numerous sources, including ACT data, that well more than half of the students who start college do so without adequate preparation. For instance, data on the cohort of students who graduated from high school in 2009 indicate that only 42 percent are prepared to succeed in entry-level college algebra; 28 percent are prepared to succeed in entry-level college biology; 53 percent are prepared to succeed in a typical entry-level social science course; and 67 percent are prepared to succeed in entry-level English composition. Only about one-quarter enter college with a good chance of passing all four of the most typical entry-level courses with a grade of C or better.5

As a result of this significant readiness shortfall, colleges and universities currently must provide thousands of courses each year that are designed to remediate essential skills and that do not carry college-level credit. In addition, many students have returned to college with years of workforce experience, but without recent experience in educational settings. These students, too, need more time, not less, to learn what they need to be truly prepared for twenty-first-century challenges.

Can some students complete college and learn what they need to learn in as little as three years? Yes, and so we should create even more opportunities for these students to accomplish this ambitious goal—and, in so doing, help save them, their families, and the taxpayers some money.

But, for the overwhelming majority of American college students, a mere three years of college study might leave them with a piece of paper, but not with a degree that has real value; it would foreclose their opportunity for a truly empowering education. And our nation, too, would be left without the well-educated citizens needed to rebuild our economy and strengthen our democratic values and traditions for our shared future security and prosperity.

Americans are often prone—especially in challenging economic times—to seek silver bullets that will reliably solve important and complex societal problems. For the problems facing higher education, however, there is no silver bullet—no simple solution. To serve students and society well, we need to proceed on multiple levels: addressing purposes, educational focus, connections across levels of learning, and clear alignment between curricular and cocurricular programs and essential learning outcomes.

We can and should use the available resources more purposefully and efficiently, as hundreds of institutions already are learning to do. But we should not squander the most important resource of all: students’ own high-effort time on task.

1Association of American Colleges and Universities, The Quality Imperative: Match Ambitious Goals for College Attainment with an Ambitious Vision for Learning (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010).

2See, for example, Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); AAC&U and Peter D. Hart Research Associates, How Should Colleges Assess and Improve Student Learning: Employers’ Views on the Accountability Challenge (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008); AAC&U and Hart Research Associates, Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010).

3AAC&U and Hart Research Associates, Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010).

4American College Testing Service (ACT). 2008. College Retention and Graduation Rates,

5ACT. ACT Profile ReportNational (Iowa City, IA: ACT, 2010).

Carol Geary Schneider