Colleges Weighing 3-Year Degrees to Save Undergrads Time, Money

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reports that colleges are weighing 3-year degrees to save undergrads time and money. She gives an odd history of the four-year degree:

The four-year bachelor’s degree has been the model in the United States since the first universities began operating before the American Revolution. Four-year degrees were designed in large part to provide a broad-based education that teaches young people to analyze and think critically, considered vital preparation to participate in the civic life of American democracy.

I seriously doubt that the universities operating in America before the Revolution had a curriculum designed to prepare students to participate in democracy.

Not only was democracy in extremely short supply then, but four-year degrees were hardly education for The People. Even by the 20th century, only a tiny fraction of men — around three percent in 1900, six percent in 1940 — had four years of college. An 8th-grade education was considered a good, solid education — and that was the “vital preparation to participate in the civic life of American democracy.”

The fact that Cambridge and Oxford offer three-year degrees has little to do with England’s comparatively recent move toward populism.

Educators are concerned that a move to three-year degrees would be giving students — and their parents — what they actually want:

But critics said they fear that an undergraduate’s academic and social experience would be compromised by shortening it to three years. College would tilt more toward job training and away from the broad-based education many U.S. schools have offered.

“Most high governmental officials who speak of education policy seem to conceive of education in this light — as a way to ensure economic competitiveness and continued economic growth,” said Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard University. “I strongly disagree with this approach.”

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