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The Three-Year Degree
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When I read this:

At most European universities, students receive their undergraduate degrees in three years – and Graduate School of Education professor Robert Zemsky thinks American should do the same…

First, he argues that because the majority of students now pursue advanced degrees, it is logical to find ways to shorten the time they spend in college in order to get a jump-start on professional and graduate degrees.

Second, Zemsky says in order to help American students transition to a three-year undergraduate system, their senior year of high school could be focused on developing the skills students will need to keep up with the accelerated pace.

I thought, don’t we do this already, by having most undergraduates (at least at relatively elite schools) take a year or semester abroad? Then Chris Shea backed me up:

Some American colleges–Yale, for example–used to be so presumptuous as to say that students would be better off spending all four years on the campus. The argument was that courses in the U.S. were more rigorous than most of those that students could find abroad. Want to see the world? Take a grand tour after college.

You don’t hear such arguments anymore. To study abroad is an expected, and seldom-challenged, part of the American college experience.

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, however [subscribers only], John F. Burness, a visiting policy professor at Duke, says there’s more than a grain of truth to the old-fashioned view. The courses students take in study-abroad programs are often weaker than the ones they take at home. And too many students, he says, treat study-abroad programs as an extended opportunity to travel, with coursework, at best, a bonus.

Now travel is nice and all (and, to be sure, the best study-abroad programs are simultaneously challenging and horizon-expanding). But as one Marshall Scholar, a serious recent graduate, tells Burness: “For many students, study abroad is a semester off, not a semester on.”

So, the real problem seems to be that many university undergraduates really DO have a three-year college education; but that many of them are wasting their time in Europe rather than applying to graduate schools before they turn twenty-one.

The logic in both counterarguments is all about efficiency, acceleration – and implicitly, that a student should be finished with their education sometime between 21 and 25.

I will be the first to admit that is a terrible, terrible thing – really, a kind of disease – to be a twenty-nine-year-old graduate student. (Being a thirty-year-old postdoctoral fellow is a little like being in remission.) But I don’t think that hurrying the entire process along is a) where we are headed or b) where we want to head.

On the other hand, if you wanted to promote a three-year baccalaureate on the grounds that it would be easier for adults to finish their education and retrain themselves for new positions — I think I’d be a lot more sympathetic to that.

September 22, 2009 / Uncategorized

10 comments

Wait, what? Many undergraduate students spend a semester abroad? Do we have statistics backing up the idea that this is in fact such a salient feature of the American college experience that it should be a jumping off point for a complete rehaul of the system? Because I knew very few people who managed to do a semester abroad, and to me it seems like it can be an elite and expensive option unless you get very lucky with financial aid and all that.

I personally wish I had taken 5 years, not four, and I took a packed schedule for all 8 semesters. It would have probably saved me some graduate grief further down the line. But you just can’t compare our college system without also comparing our secondary education system, which is *completely different* from theirs.

Matt Penniman says…

I agree with Saheli about the secondary education question — in particular, I think that most European secondary ed systems track students much earlier, and therefore encourage earlier specialization. In contrast, it feels like a lot of Americans don’t really decide what to major in until their second year of college. I’d be interested to see some statistics on what portion of students graduate with a different major than the one they declared on their application, with comparisons between the US and Europe — I bet we have a lot more switching, and the four-year time frame makes it possible (or at least easier) to do that.

Not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s part of the equation.

Matt Penniman says…

There’s also a pretty big question left unasked here about whether it’s better to barrel on with your education straight through, or to spend some time working between undergrad and grad school. Zemsky seems to think that faster process = longer career = more return on your education, but I wonder if it might also produce earlier burnout or disillusionment.

Tim Carmody says…

Yeah, I think Zemsky is trying to use a three-year baccalaureate as a lever to reform K-12 in the US. Which is a pretty unwieldly lever.

Anywhere from a year to a semester abroad is common at Penn, depending on the major. It wasn’t at MSU, where I did my undergraduate, although they pushed summer programs pretty well. I did one in London between sophomore and junior year.

Also, if you were very lucky, random administration dudes would come up to you in a room and ask you to go to Bangladesh. Some students you can very quickly want out of your country on any terms you can get.

In my case, it really was a chance to have scholarship money pay for a vacation. Educational content was lax, but it was easily the best semester of my life, both fun and highly determining of my future in ways I couldn’t fully foresee.

I had friends who did a full semester or year abroad, but generally, I think this, especially the YEAR abroad, is kind of an Ivy/top lib-arts college thing.

I don’t know how it is for you, Saheli, but it’s weird to me both 1) how much I wanted to pack in to my four years in college and 2) how driven I was to finish everything, to get started right away, to not lose time. Time is exactly what helps you in graduate school, as you gain teaching experience, dig in to your research, accumulate publications and awards… and still lose assistant prof jobs to better-seasoned postdocs with not only their dissertations but book contracts for them in hand. There is still something of the awe of the precocious wunderkind, but the returns on that sort of thing are very much diminished.

aside from all the three-year undergrad/semester abroad business (i’d say it’s the exception and not the rule at most colleges), i take issue with the it’s “a terrible, terrible thing – really, kind of a disease – to be a twenty-nine-year-old graduate student.” (i realize you are probably referring to folks who stay in school through their twenties, and there’s probably some self-deprecation in there as well).

as a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student, i don’t think i’d appreciate the education i’m getting had i not been out of school and working. those years of semi-gainful employment + stumbling around figuring out the “real world” only add value to the education i’m currently pursuing. meanwhile, sharing classrooms with twenty-two-year-old graduate students whose primary frame of reference is the classroom makes for frustrating seminars.

fundamentally, though, i agree that undergraduate educations are and should be training grounds for graduate and professional coursework. i feel lucky that i went to a liberal arts college that gave me few marketable skills besides an ability to think critically and an appreciation of learning.

Tim Carmody says…

Surprisingly, I ALSO take issue with my argument that it’s “a terrible, terrible thing – really, kind of a disease – to be a twenty-nine-year-old graduate student”… because, until August, that was me. I was poking fun at myself – as you can see, my sincere argument entirely contradicts this take.

Dan says…

I’ll jump on the bandwagon with Alex and Matt: while I had many grad school peers who went straight from undergrad to grad school and then performed admirably, I felt like those of us who took some time off were generally happier with the entire experience. Grad school seemed like a better gig when contrasted to other work.

Also, I think more random administration officials of major universities should be sending students unsupervised off to work on generally unspecified research projects. The brochures would be easy to print up: Go Somewhere. Do Something. Let Us Know When You Get Back.

Reducing college from 4 years to 3 years could benefit students who take out massive loans just to complete undergraduate. There are plenty of stats out there about students who don’t finish college because along the way, they can no longer afford it. An accelerated path could help flatten the playing field in that way.

There isn’t just talk of shortening undergraduate programs, but law school as well. The third year of law school is considered by many just a way of increasing the cost of a legal education, to increase the barriers of entry to the profession.

If school is shortened, however, there need to be better post-school apprenticeship programs in place for new grads to get better on-the-job training. With the current economic climate, it appears that a lot of these apprenticeship programs take the form of unpaid internships or low-paying publishing jobs that only add more monetary pressures on poorer students (while creating a certain class exclusivity in certain professions).

Tim Carmody says…

Yeah; I agree with all of this.

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