A Debate on Higher Ed and the Three-Year Degree

American higher education may still be the best in the world, but how will it cope with threats such as rising costs, unprepared students, and potential online rivals? The changes could affect the 12.4 million undergrads at large public universities as well as the 3.4 million at private colleges. We gathered five thinkers to debate the merits of a three-year degree and assess the state of higher education: Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University (and a board member of The Washington Post Company, which owns NEWSWEEK); Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University; Elaine Tuttle Hansen, president of Bates College; Robert Zemsky,a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a new book on education reform; and Diane Ravitch, professor of education at New York University and former assistant secretary of education under Lamar Alexander. They spoke with NEWSWEEK Deputy Editor Debra Rosenberg. Excerpts:

Is American higher education broken? Why do we need to fix it?
CROW: I don't know that there are tremendous amounts of brokenness as much as a need for continuous innovation and continuous improvement. The learning process should be as flexible as possible. So it's not so much the simplistic argument of four years versus three years, it's the notion of how do you attain critical learning outcomes as rapidly as any individual has the capacity to do so. If that means doing things in three years, that's great.

Bob, you've made the case that the three-year degree might be a quick way to change higher ed. Why?
ZEMSKY: We've been unable to really change sustainably across higher ed. We've got to move away from talking about a fixed knowledge base that is anything but fixed and talk about ways of accessing that knowledge base over a period of a lifetime. And my guess is that we can teach that in three years to well-prepared students, and what we have to do with un-well-prepared students is get them prepared before we start them down that journey. We need a dislodging event that will just make everybody question all of the assumptions simultaneously instead of one assumption at a time. And to me, the three-year degree would do that.

BOLLINGER: I think it's a very interesting and even profound question that Bob raises, which is, is there any longer anything that a reasonable person could call a base of knowledge that an "educated" person should have coming into the world? I would actually say that there still is and, in fact, I think my view is that it's expanded. And so even a longer period of time, I think, is justified. There is so much about the world that it is critical that young students coming into our universities have access to. It's no longer just of interest to find about China. It's now imperative that a young person graduate with a knowledge of China and India.

Bates has offered a three-year degree but few students have taken advantage of it. Why?
HANSEN: Our experience really verifies the point that you need some flexibility in the education system, and it also introduces another dimension, which is how much time do students of traditional age need to develop. We've had a three-year option for over 40 years because we think students should have options, and we've always worried about affordability. So we've seen a few students who are ready and can benefit from the compressed program, especially since this was the only way that they could afford a great liberal-arts education. And because we are able to teach students one at a time, we're able to monitor their progress and advise them. And they're rare people who can do it. We intend to continue the three-year option, but I think we're seeing the interest trending down in part because there is so much we pack into four years. So much happens just in the junior and senior year at those ages. It's not going to be a one-size-fits-all fix.

ZEMSKY: Can I push back just a little? I am arguing that we can compress this. I think we have to simplify it. I'm the first one to say that this can't just be an option. The problem with making it an option, ironically, is it increases higher-education costs. You've got to run each of the options with equal fervor. It's time to look for something that will really make us rethink everything instead of just rethinking the things along the perimeter.

HANSEN: I would push back on this notion that we need to simplify. I think too much in our culture is about doing things faster and simpler and easier. And what we can't let go of in higher education is that slower is actually better when it comes to learning and the kind of capacity for lifelong access to learning.

BOLLINGER: I would say we should first focus on what it is that young people need to know coming into the world that they are going to inherit and then design the structure and the cost around that. Too much attention is paid to the "costs" of higher education. It's just a fact that the cost of providing the education we now do is half of what it actually costs to provide it. It's largely because of state subsidies, federal subsidies, and alumni giving and other gifts that we're able to provide the quality of education we do. It's much cheaper for students than many people realize. That said, there should be a lot more support in this country for students who lack the means to get a college education or to have to suffer and shape their career options because of the cost. I wouldn't link the amount of time to degree or the programs that we offer to cost. I would go to a different solution for that problem.

CROW: Speed is not a function of somehow taking things away. It's a function of actually finding ways to embrace the expanded complexity that we face and the expanded knowledge base that we face. What we're doing is finding ways in which you can move through those areas that are more routine more quickly, allowing more time to be spent on the subjects that require more focus and more energy. We cannot be innovative if we find ourselves trapped in a structure where we think that we have a certain amount of years, eight semesters or whatever. So we're working to try to drive college-level courses down into high schools. We're working to find ways to move more quickly for those students who are able to move through the general-education requirements that we have, allowing more time for other things.

HANSEN: Well, I don't disagree with any of that but I just think that students need time for reflection. Everybody in our world just is trying to pack a lot in. But what we're also looking for as part of the educational process is time alone and time with others. Debate and listen and think and imagine and, above all, learn to love learning.

ZEMSKY: I'm a little worried about what Lee said. I think we fool ourselves if we think we're going to deal with issues of higher education without realizing there are really economic constraints. I'm not willing to take the economics off the table. Simplify is not to dumb down, but what we've actually done in undergraduate curriculum is we've created endless choice. Students could have programs of study—that's what they do in Europe—instead of endless choices of electives. What we really do for most undergraduates is tell them you have to find your own way through our supermarket and when we get to the cash register, we'll see if you have the right items in your grocery basket. And frequently they don't, and we send them back, and therefore it takes five years.

Diane, only slightly more than half of today's students manage to graduate in four years. What do you think of them doing it in three?
I think it's a bad idea. Most of the students who are going to enter college in the next few years are ill-prepared for college. I shouldn't say most, but anywhere from a third to a half require remediation of basic skills. They're very poorly prepared in mathematics. They know little of history or literature or science or the arts or geography. They probably have not studied a foreign language and to reduce their higher education from four years to three years means they'll have 25 percent less education. And they enter probably requiring a first year just to get up to speed. So many, many kids are only going to do college work for three years as it is. So I think it is a bad idea because our K–12 system is not up to it. The high schools are not going to suddenly become more rigorous because the colleges reduce their expectations.

ZEMSKY: If you look at high schools, what you find is an awful lot of seniors who are really bored. The three-year degree isn't just going to affect colleges. It will have to affect high schools too, and that's part of the big design. We've been trying to get the high schools better for 25 years and we're moving in the wrong direction.

CROW: Let's just assume that the students are prepared to do university-level work. The thing that we're working on here at a very large public university is not allowing some historic factor of time to dominate. Thomas Jefferson didn't go to college for four years. It may be that students attain multiple degrees. It may be that some are three years, some are four years, some are six years. It would depend on what they are attempting to achieve.

BOLLINGER: I put it differently from Michael but I think we may agree. I think it's just a very big mistake to approach the structure of higher education or any other education based upon any number. To my mind you're just avoiding the crucial and, admittedly, extremely difficult question: what is the knowledge and what are the capacities that we want young people to have in order to do well in the future world they're going to be responsible for?

RAVITCH: I suspect that probably a minority of people in higher education actually plan to attend for four years. Many go for two years and return later, others take five years, six years, or seven years. So I don't think that the pattern itself is one that is as rigid as you're presenting it. What concerns me is that the students need time to try things that are not strictly career-oriented. And that what you seem to imply is that you come into college and you have a career track and you move on after three years. But I think that that takes away the time to take the History of Art or the History of Music. And just one other caution, and that is what I see as the tidal wave of uneducated students about to land on the shores of higher education as a result of the No Child Left Behind legislation, which has so narrowed the preparation of young people in this country to reading and math, reading and math, reading and math, and to testing the lowest level of skills. So given all of these trends together, I can't see a very good argument for saying, "Let's cut back on higher education. We don't need four years."

How do you think that online education fits into this? [Disclosure: NEWSWEEK's parent company also owns Kaplan, which offers online education.]
I do see that that's one way colleges and universities have managed to begin at least to address some of this explosion of knowledge. I think our students really are finding that technology does ratchet up the power of what they're able to do in four years. But it doesn't replace anything.

BOLLINGER: I do not think we understand, however, how the Web is going to reshape what we do. All you have to do is look at the press. Five years ago no one anticipated the situation the press finds itself in now economically. And, while universities are different, you have to ask, are we the last institution to feel and experience the full very, very significant effects of this new technology and all that can be done with it?

RAVITCH: I think the explosion of knowledge may require more education and more time for education, and not less. Also, I think that what technology has done, in addition to providing wonderful access to resources, is to introduce a level of distraction that makes it very difficult for students or for anyone to concentrate. I can't tell you the extent to which the availability of texting and social networking and all of these kinds of technological doodads has distracted everybody from doing their work, so that it may be even more difficult to use the time well. And I'm having trouble understanding the logic that says we have more to learn and therefore we need less time in which to learn it.

ZEMSKY: No, Diane, it's not that we need less time; we're going to learn more over more time. What we really need is what I keep calling "inquiry skills." If you actually look at the statistics, what's going on is not so much they're taking longer to graduate, but they actually know from the beginning they're going to need a master's degree. The B.A. has just become another transition zone and we would better design it as a transition zone rather than an endpoint.