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The Three Year B.A.: Boon or Bust?

** NOTE: The plain-text version of this article, below, was scanned from a 1972 reprint and has been corrected by the author to remove typographical errors generated during scanning. Two footnotes have been moved to the end, and page numbers have been suppressed.


Kenneth R. Conklin, "The Three Year B.A.: Boon or Bust?" AAUP Bulletin, LVIII, 1 (Spring, 1972), pp. 35-39

The Three-Year B.A.:
Boon or Bust?

Kenneth R. Conklin

In colleges and universities all over North America, faculty, administrators, and trustees are at least mentioning, and sometimes promoting, the idea of a three-year bachelor's degree. The purpose of this essay is to explore some ways of formulating that idea and to discuss the merits of various formulations. This essay does not pretend to summarize data nor to list all the merits and demerits of different ideas, but is an effort to review the general issues involved in defining the bachelor's degree, with particular emphasis on the question whether the length of time required for obtaining the degree should be reduced.[1]

Why the Three-Year B.A. Sounds Attractive

The general economic slump has left its mark on higher education. Public institutions have had to reduce their budgets because of lower tax revenues and rising social welfare burdens on available tax monies; private institutions have received less money from gifts. Tuition rates have been rising, so that hard-pressed students and parents find it increasingly difficult to manage the expense of higher education. Recruiters sometimes cannot fill their quotas without lowering the standards by which students are accepted. Competition among colleges seeking students is keen.

The panacea for solving these problems is widely suggested as being a three-year B.A. From the students' viewpoint, a three-year B.A. would offer a 25 per cent saving in time and money. Thus, colleges that have a three-year B.A. could expect an easier job of recruiting students. Graduate and professional schools would get more students sooner. State legislatures and the managers of private endowment funds would be pleased at the prospect of cutting the cost of the degree. Apparently everyone stands to gain by adopting a three-year B.A.

If indeed there is going to be a general movement toward the three-year B.A., then those who get on the bandwagon first will profit most from it. Every institution with sufficient prestige to overcome conservative objections will try to be among the first to adopt the panacea. Soon there will be a virtually unstoppable tidal wave of changeovers to the three-year B.A. What happens when this transitional period is over and the three-year B.A. is commonplace? Institutions that were first on the bandwagon will have enjoyed two or three years of relative prosperity, but once nearly everyone is doing it, that advantage will vanish.

The Three-Year B.A. Would Devalue Education

The net effect of a general and systematic shortening of the B.A. would be a devaluation of the degree in terms of both economics and competencies. The economic devaluation is obvious: the degree would be purchased for a lower price, and would probably have less market value. The competency devaluation is less obvious. The loss of a year does not necessarily mean a loss of competence: it is conceivable that increased efficiency would make three years of education yield what we now obtain in four. But the loss of a year does mean that everybody (students, professors, administrators) would have to spin his wheels faster and faster to keep even. Breadth of liberal education would be lost, leisurely incubation of ideas would be economically unfeasible, and nonspecialist dabbling would vanish, all in the name of increased efficiency. The proportion of peripheral work to educative work would increase: admission, matriculation, counseling, certification, graduation, and placement would still require as much time per student as before, only now these things would occur in three years instead of four. Professors would therefore be called upon to perform even more administrivia than at present, thereby reducing the amount of time available for teaching, reading, thinking, and writing. The life of a college professor would come to resemble that of a high school teacher, and students would regard college as little more than a somewhat specialized and vocationalized extension of high school.

In addition to proposals for a three-year B.A. as the standard, others suggest not a universal but a selective three-year B.A. The argument is that if a student knows what he wants to study and has an above-average record of grades, he ought to be helped to achieve his goals without wasting time on peripheral or irrelevant fields. One problem with this is that our very best students, who hold most promise of becoming society's leaders, will find themselves pressured early into specialized training where they are least likely to develop breadth of vision. It also seems clear that the selectivity of the program would rapidly weaken. What student or parent wants to pay for four years when a diploma might be had in three? Soon the amputated B.A. would become the standard.

The Three-Year B.A. Would Cripple General Education

If there is to be a reduction in the amount of time required for the B.A., we can probably expect that the time eliminated would be taken from general education rather than from a student's major. One reason for this is academic politics: general education is divided among many elective courses in many departments, while the major is taken within a single department. We know that departments will be much more jealous in guarding their upper-level specialized territory than in guarding their lower-level survey courses. When administrators slice up the shrinking budgetary pie, prestigious departments with numerous majors fare better than service departments whose courses are populated mainly by nonmajors. There are no vested interests working to maintain power and high prestige for general education, while individual departments are, at many institutions, extremely strong political fiefdoms; hence, general education will be cut back far more readily than specialized education.

This crippling of general education would come at a time when our university graduates are already overspecialized, and our society is becoming a shambIes for lack of general, integrative wisdom. What we need today are broadly educated citizens who can apply intelligence and interdisciplinary understanding to solve large-scale general prohlems. The three-year B.A., by emphasizing efficiency in specialized training while cutting back on general education, would seriously handicap the development of broadly educated leadership.

Another reason why general education will bear the brunt of any cuts in the B.A. is that there are no agreed-upon definitions of "general education." Only rarely does anyone formulate ohjectives for general education, or lists of competencies which general education is supposed to develop. Even when ohjectives or competencies are mentioned, they are stated in such vague, general terms that it is impossible to determine whether they are achieved. Indeed, some people claim that the very concept of "competence" applies only to specialized education in a major, and that general education is either "just for fun" or else "to produce a well-rounded person" (as in a girls' finishing school).

In a time of economic difficulties, it seems appropriate that poorly defined luxuries, frills, and fun should be sacrificed before cutting hack on well-defined essentials. Administrators responsible for recruiting students and helping them find jobs are eager to "sell" a college program on the hasis of its marketability; students, faced with a difficult job market, would rather give up the frills to concentrate on getting a competitive edge by taking more work in their majors; parents and donors want to see "results": less-liberal elements among the public are convinced that the corruption of the young is already well advanced by too much nonproductive general education. The absence of defined standards of competence makes general education the collective scapegoat of all these groups.

Competence vs. Time-Serving

Those who favor the three-year B.A. typically point out that it is only by virtue of custom that a bachelor's degree takes four years. Furthermore, they point out that it is rather silly to define a degree primarily in terms of the length of time a student spends warming his seat. Therefore, in view of the arbitrariness of any time-serving definition of a B.A., we might as well make everyone happy by adopting a three-year term -- so say the supporters of the three-year B.A. Such reasoning is obviously shallow. The B.A. should not be defined on the basis of the length of time required to earn it. Of course the four-year B.A., should be abolished, and so should the three-year B.A.

Some reformers suggest defining the B.A. in terms of a certain number of credits or courses. This formulation has some merit, for it would then be possible for students to proceed at their own individual rates. Some students might complete the required number of credits in three years, while others might take five. Many students might reduce the time they spend earning the degree by receiving credit through advanced placement from high school, CLEP, or proficiency exams for particular courses. Summer school and course overloads would also be possible. Reducing time this way would not of itself lessen the amount of education or change its distribution between general and special, since the same quantity and distribution requirements could be imposed as at present.[2]

A credit-based formulation of the B.A. is, however, closely tied to the time-serving concept. The number of credits selected as the definition of the degree is currently the same as the number of credits a student would normally acquire while pursuing a full-time load over a period of four academic years. Proponents of a three-year B.A. sometimes propose to reduce the number of credits required for a degree to the number normally obtained in three academic years. When gerrymandered in this way, the credit-based formulation is nothing more than a thinly disguised time-serving devaluation.

The credit-based formulation derives whatever merit it has from two factors that distinguish it from the time-serving formulation: time is flexible, with each student proceeding at his own pace; and some minimum "amount" of content is required. Yet, requiring exposure to a certain amount of content is about as arbitrary as requiring attendance in the institution for a certain length of time. The fact that a student "takes" a certain number of credits is no more a guarantee of his level of understanding or competence than the fact that he has spent a certain number of months "in residence" on the campus. What we really hope to do by requiring either credit or time is to develop certain levels of understanding or competence. Why not convert that hope into an operational definition of the B.A. by defining the B.A. directly in terms of understanding and competence, instead of defining it indirectly in terms of credit and time?

One obvious problem is that credit and time can be stated objectively with precision, so that everyone knows exactly when the requirements have been met. The credit or time formulations also decentralize judgmental responsibility, so that no individual professor can be held totally responsible for denying a degree to a student. But understanding and competence cannot be defined precisely or operationally. Judging another person's general understanding, or even judging his competence in the performance of specialized skills, is always done subjectively, even when the judge is an expert. Both the judges and the judged are uneasy about the subjective application of imprecise criteria. It takes a certain amount of moral and professional courage for a professor acting alone or with two or three colleagues to say, "I take the responsibility for denying you your degree."

Although the decision whether to award a particular student a degree poses heavier responsibility than the professor now has, we might observe that adopting a competency-based B.A. would actually relieve professors of a persistent, time-consuming, unpleasant task they now perform; namely, grading. Grades in individual courses would be unnecessary; indeed, many students might decide to take few if any courses. The only thing that matters is whether a student can demonstrate the understandings and competencies required for the degree. How a student goes about achieving these understandings and competencies is his own affair. Evaluation at the end of several years would be separated from the studies a student engages in while working toward a degree. During the period while a student is studying, he would naturally regard the professor as a friend and helper, rather than as the enemy whose test must be taken to get credit and a grade. Such a separation of evaluation from teaching would also provide a kind of outside accounting system whereby each professor could be evaluated by his colleagues according to how well his students do in the area for which the professor is responsible.

Universities in other parts of the world often have comprehensive baccalaureate examinations with a concomitant de-emphasis or elimination of grades and credits in particular courses. Sometimes, though, the result is that students do very little learning until the time comes to cram for the big examination. Students and teachers alike engage in the worst sort of memorization-recitation, and real inquiry or understanding is subordinated to the desperate scramble to prepare for the test. The way to avoid this nonsense is to design the test in such a way that mere memorization will not suffice, and to change the questions radically and often. For example, we might ask students to select any current area of scientific inquiry, describe the research in some detail, discuss the likely effects on society if the research is successful, refer to historical and literary works that support the claim that the alleged effects would occur, and defend some recommendations about what we should do in the light of this information. Some students might choose to answer by referring to research into genetic control, while other students would talk about lasers, controlled fusion, macroeconomic forecasting, or operant conditioning. In addition to asking students to pass the test, we might also require students to write a paper, build a project, serve an internship, participate significantly in some campus activity, etc.

How Can We Develop a Competency-Based B.A.?

Obviously, a major department should define the competencies required in the major to certify the student for the B.A. When it comes to general education, however, competence is presently undefined. We don't have agreement on what general education is for, so we cannot define what competencies would certify its possession. Furthermore, it is very difficult to get scholars from different departments even to talk with one another, let alone arrive at a consensus on the meaning of general education. The natural tendency is to forget about developing consensus, and turn over the task of defining general education to each department or division. One version of this is that students must obtain a certain number of credits in the social sciences to graduate, and the social science departments decide how to carve up these credits. In a competency-based B.A., the tendency would be to let each major department define what constitutes general education for its own majors. Such a procedure would be disastrous for general education, because of the tendency to let vested interests get in the way of an honest appraisal of general education. Even an "honest" appraisal would be arrived at through the inevitably biased perspective of the major discipline. The argument is used that departments are exceedingly strong in academic politics, and will not relinquish their power. But this argument merely proves that administrators should do something to weaken departmental powers or to strengthen incentives toward interdisciplinary general education -- it does not prove that departments should be given increased power in adjudicating general education.

A committee on interdisciplinarianship, composed of members of various departments, would be a pleasant political settlement, but would not guarantee a competent definition of general education. But what it would guarantee is that each department would send its most parochial and persuasive member to represent strongly the vested interests of the department. If interdisciplinarianship is indeed one of the ingredients of general education, then specialists in interdisciplinarianship should be appointed, rather than representatives of the vested interests of departments.

Among members of the university community there are some people who have devoted professional study to the question of what constitutes general education. These are scholars in the study of education, including administrators, who may have studied educational problems in graduate school or in-service. Therefore, chauvinistic though it may sound, some of the people most competent to define general education are probably faculty members in departments of education, together with administrators who may have devoted scholarly study to educational problems of curriculum design, policy, and philosophy. Although scholars in the study of education could supply valuable advice about the purpose, implementation. and evaluation of general education, they, like other scholars, are often absorbed with their own specialty to the exclusion of broader concerns. To develop excellence in general education, we need as well the technical advice of scholars within their disciplines, but more than anything else we need wisdom.

If there is any agreement on what constitutes general education as apart from specialization, it is that general education seeks to develop wisdom as distinct from knowledge. Interdisciplinarianship is one aspect of wisdom which incorporates various fields in an integrated worldview. But wisdom transcends knowledge, and even the interdisciplinary uses of knowledge. The best way to define the general education component of a competency-based B.A. would therefore be through the appointment of a blue-ribbon committee of wise people to do the job. Some of these people might be faculty scholars, administrators, or even students. To avoid political in-fighting, it might be important to select some or even most members of the committee from outside the institution. The important requirement is that members of this committee should command the respect of every segment of the university. A scholar's stature in his own field would not of itself qualify him for membership; he must be acknowledged additionally by students, faculty in other disciplines, and administrators to be fair-minded, broadly and profoundly knowledgeable, humane, and trustworthy.

Those who serve on the committee must view their job as an effort to define general education correctly, rather than to adjudicate among the vested interests of departments. The committee would need autonomy and great latitude to do its job properly. Perhaps the following procedure would prove workable:

The president of the institution would receive confidential nominations from individuals or groups in all segments of the university, having emphasized that he is looking for people who are wise and command universal respect. After thorough consultation with all groups, the president announces publicly those whom he wishes to serve. The faculty then votes by secret ballot to approve the committee as a whole (not its individual members), and perhaps a two-thirds vote should be required for the committee to be empowered. The committee is provided a budget for research assistants and secretarial help, and released time is given to committee members affiliated with the institution (any student on the committee might receive academic credit for his work). When the committee has completed its work, it publishes its findings and recommendations in the form of a single document. The faculty then votes to accept or reject the document as a whole (additions, deletions, and changes are not permitted), and perhaps a two-thirds vote should be required for passage. If passed by the faculty, the president and/or board of trustees then accepts or vetoes the entire package, again without change.

The procedure outlined here may need to be modified to suit particular circumstances, and some of its provisions may be challenged. For example, it seems important to provide committee members released time on the grounds that defining general education is not a job that professors or students can do in time stolen from other full-time duties. It seems important that the committee's report be approved without change, so that departments cannot lobby with other departments or engage in political logrolling to protect each other's interests. Likewise, the faculty should act first on the report so that it can avoid administrative pressure for passage and can instead pressure the administration for passage. The administration must approve or reject the whole package, not tinkering or bargaining with what the committee and faculty have already approved.


The economic slump is producing a general reduction in the standard of living, and those who propose a three-year B.A. are in effect asking us to reduce the standard of education as part of this movement. The motives behind the proposal of a three-year B.A. and the consequences of its passage may well constitute the most serious threat to American education in recent decades. The transparently obvious motive is survival in a competitive market, and the consequences will be a devaluation of the degree with no long-term survival advantage. The time and credits removed from the B.A. would come mainly out of general education, during a period when our society needs more global wisdom and less specialization. In the name of efficiency, we would destroy the unhurried leisure of faculty and students which is necessary to the incubation of greatness.

Only a decade ago, there was a severe shortage of college teachers. Some graduate schools began proposing and even granting Doctors of Arts degrees (not requiring a dissertation) for professors who would be viewed primarily as teachers rather than publishing scholars. That attempt to devalue the doctorate failed, and the participants must surely be embarrassed in the presently oversupplied faculty market. A devaluation of the B.A. might well end the same way, except that it would be hard to restore the fourth year if a three-year B.A. is widely adopted. Higher education is sick and needs reform. The three-year B.A. will only constitute a temporary bribe which diverts attention from fundamental problems. In a few years the problems will return with strengthened vengeance. We must solve the problems, not give in to extortion.

[1] I would like to thank my colleagues at Emory University, and particularly Professor Charles Strickland, for numerous discussions which helped clarify my thinking. At the same time, I must strongly affirm that the ideas in this essay are my own, and may conflict with the opinions of my colleagues or the official position of my college.

[2] The author must acknowledge the merit of the credit-based formulation, since he is himself a product of such a system, having completed a B.S. in mathematics with honors in four semesters and one summer session.

[end of article]


** Note by Ken Conklin: Interestingly, the same issue of a 3-Year B.A. is being considered by many colleges in May 2009, and for similar reasons during another severe economic recession. Here's a newspaper report:
The Washington Post, Saturday, May 23, 2009

Colleges Consider 3-Year Degrees To Save Undergrads Time, Money

By Valerie Strauss

In an era when college students commonly take longer than four years to get a bachelor's degree, some U.S. schools are looking anew at an old idea: slicing a year off their undergraduate programs to save families time and money. Advocates of a three-year undergraduate degree say it would work well for ambitious students who know what they want to study. Such a program could provide the course requirements for a major and some general courses that have long been the hallmark of American education.

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.

The three-year degree is the common model at the University of Cambridge and Oxford University in England, and some U.S. schools have begun experimenting with the idea. To cram four years of study into three, some will require summer work, others will shave course lengths and some might cut the number of credit hours required.

"It will not be easy to produce a low-cost, high-quality three-year curriculum for a college degree, but now is the time to try," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former education secretary and a past president of the University of Tennessee, told a group of educators this year. "Today's economic crisis and tight budgets are the best time to innovate and change."

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." Others point to failed experiments with the model. Only five students chose a three-year program at Upper Iowa University when it was offered several years ago, and all ultimately decided to stay for four years.

But discussions among educators and students about what constitutes a 21st-century college education in the information age increasingly include talk about how the economic downturn is making it more difficult for families to afford college -- and about how schools must be more creative in assisting them.

Many students have extended their undergraduate stays for a variety of reasons, including the need to work to pay high tuitions.

The most recent statistics from the Education Department, from 2001, show that 4.2 percent of U.S. undergraduates finished with bachelor's degrees in three years, 57.3 percent graduated in four years and 38.5 percent took more than four years to graduate.

A new survey conducted by Junior Achievement and the Allstate Foundation found that 55 percent of teens had changed their college plans because of the economy.

Justin Guiffre, 19, a sophomore at George Washington University, said financial considerations might lead him to graduate in three years, an opportunity he has because of credits for Advanced Placement courses he took in high school.

Noting that the sticker price to attend the university is about $54,000, he said, "A three-year program could be appropriate for students who demonstrate commitment, academic excellence and maturity."

At a February conference of the American Council on Education in Washington, Alexander said a three-year bachelor's degree for motivated students would cut "one-fourth the cost from a college education" and save students considerable time.

"I think we are going to see more colleges offering the three-year degree and better marketing," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the nonprofit council and a former president of the 16-campus University of North Carolina. Such programs have existed for several years at a number of schools, including Bates College in Maine and Ball State University in Indiana, which offers three-year degrees in about 30 areas. But more are jumping in, said Tony Pals, director of public information for the nonprofit National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

"They will be watched closely by other colleges, as well as policymakers," he said.

Lawmakers in Rhode Island's House recently approved a bill that requires all state institutions of higher education to create three-year bachelor's programs that would begin in fall 2010.

This fall, Hartwick College in New York is cutting a year -- and more than $40,000 in costs -- off its undergraduate degree program. Lipscomb University in Nashville will offer a three-year degree this fall that requires students to attend two summer sessions (shortening the time they can earn money at summer jobs). The school says students will save about $10,000.

At Chatham University in Pittsburgh, a three-year bachelor of interior architecture will be offered without summer courses, allowing students to get into the job market a year earlier, school officials said. School officials reconfigured the four-year degree by cutting the studio classes from 14 weeks to seven.

"It's a creative solution to a lot of different things," said program director Lori Alexander. "Students enter the workforce quicker, they save a year of tuition and they can go on sooner for graduate study. And no, they aren't missing anything. Academic quality stays the same."

As if three years isn't enough of a departure, Purdue University's College of Technology in Indiana just announced a two-year bachelor's degree starting this summer. It is aimed at educating unemployed auto and manufacturing workers but is open to anyone, created with the idea that workers whose companies are eligible for federal economic stimulus funds would go to school while receiving unemployment checks, a school spokesman said.

Johnson Sattiewhite, 21, a junior at Howard University, is taking five years to get his bachelor's degree because, he said, he did not decide to major in advertising until his sophomore year and needed to catch up on course work. A three-year bachelor's might work for some students, he said, but many need more time.

College, he said, is about more than academics. It involves social networking and learning how to deal with life.

"We have four years to set up our future outside of college," he said. "Why give up one?"


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(c) Copyright 2009 Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved