John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

I feel this coming: the four-year degree must go!

Back in what Maureen Dowd of The New York Times called “Bushworld,” I just knew this couldn’t last: lowering taxes; increasing government spending and debt; spreading democracy by invasion of two sovereign nations; accelerating deregulation; encouraging consumer debt and home ownership for those who couldn’t afford it; ignoring New Orleans. I knew things couldn’t last. What were we thinking when we allowed all this to happen? And then the house of cards came tumbling down. This is truly The Great Recession. And things aren’t going to go back to the way they were: the new normal. And one of the casualties is going to be the four-year degree. It’s just too expensive.

Let’s face it: we just can’t afford it any longer. Consumers can’t. Institutions can’t. Governments can’t. This unique American idea of a “four-year degree” with significant amounts of “general education,” which prolong time to degree completion rates and which many students (and faculty) don’t want, is going to become a vestigial organ.

We simply have to accelerate the process for degree attainment. Four to six years is simply too long to sustain the race. Perhaps one of the very best means we have to increase degree attainment is to decrease the required credit hours and hence decrease costs, and time to degree completion rates. Oh this makes me so sad. Our students will be less “well rounded.” There will be far fewer opportunities to introduce students to potential majors they never considered before (e.g. anthropology). Students will not have the grounding in writing, speaking, numeracy skills, knowledge of our own history, political systems, literature, world cultures, you name it. The professional majors will be the ones in the life boat.

This will accelerate the conversion of two-year colleges to what I am calling “comprehensive colleges,” offering two-year degrees through open admissions and allowing students to AVOID transfer by remaining at the same institution.

The times they are a-changing. Instead of putting a gun to my head over this, I think we have to get out front on this, manage it, use it as a catalyst to rethink everything we are doing, perhaps including the basic paradigm of looking at degree attainment is simply a matter of accumulating credits through seat time. What an exciting opportunity this may present. As Rahm Emmanuel has so famously said: “a crisis is a terrible opportunity to waste.”

-John Gardner

One Comment

  1. MaryDecember 15, 2009 at 7:07 amReply

    Thank you, John. I knew I could count on you as the voice of reason. I've been so discouraged lately reading opinions that liberal arts should be cut.

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