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Is cutting college to three years a good idea?

Newsweek's cover story, "The Three-Year Solution," by U.S. Senator and former Education Secretary and University of Tennessee president Lamar Alexander, has the great virtue of forcing a rethink of how we have been doing higher education for more than a century. But you can sort of tell, at the end of the piece, that even Alexander doesn't think cutting college from four to three years is such a hot idea.

Sure, it will save money for students, at least in theory. And maybe it will lead universities to trim the curricular fat from their graduation requirements, inspire other efficiencies and even persuade some undergraduates to reduce the extraordinary amount of time they spend watching TV, playing video games and bingeing on adult beverages. Many colleges offer the opportunity to graduate in three years to students with good reasons for being in a hurry. That's fine.
But for everyone else, why do we want to mess with the one part of our education system---particularly the public sector---which is the envy of the rest of the world and is the prime motivator of a nationwide movement by inner city and rural educators to give low-income students the academic skills that will serve them both in college and in life?
Our cultural bias in favor of four years of college is, I admit, old-fashioned. I accept the premise that the same amount of learning could be done in less time. As American journalism's leading cheerleader for encouraging students to earn college credit while they are still in high school, I can see that all those AP, IB and Cambridge credits could make the traditional college freshman year unnecessary.
Yet I have seen the wonders four years of college can do for uncertain, frightened, addled adolescents. I don't think three years is enough time to think about their futures and try out possible careers and avocations. Four year colleges are the best thing we have for turning our young people into mature, self-confident adults. That fourth year is often spent doing individually selected research projects, working closely with top professors or, in my case, spending every waking moment putting out the daily college paper (and wooing, successfully, the managing editor.) That opportunity changed my life for the better, and I suspect nearly every college graduate reading this has a similar example from their own four years on campus.
At the end of his piece, Alexander does suggest a different way to get more out of our colleges---open them up year round. Dartmouth, for instance, requires every student to spend at least one summer in class. That saves the college more than $10 million a year and raises the possibility of finding more space for eager students if all colleges put themselves on year-round schedules. That is worth trying out, but please let us all stay that fourth year, if we want to. Life is going to be moving fast enough pretty soon. We need time to think about that, and get ready.

By Jay Mathews  | October 21, 2009; 11:52 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Repeat after me: "University is not a vocational school." "University is not a vocational school."

We already have 2-year vocational degrees, and they serve a great purpose. Liberal Arts degrees are about something different: learning for its own sake. Eliminating the 4th year would shortchange University students of that opportunity.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | October 21, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

People seem to be forgetting that at least 40% of college students have not received a degree SIX years after they started

Posted by: confused1 | October 21, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I did a degree in 4 years, and then went back for a fifth to finish a second major because I loved the environment of my school, that loving a particular topic was not only encouraged but embraced. My fourth year was focused on an English capstone, which I had to defend, and a full slate of history classes; my fifth year on one class each semester plus diving head first into actual historical research. I can't tell you how much those experiences prepared me for graduate school.

Along the way, I learned that biology wasn't the major for me, the journalism is insanely hard work (but I'm glad I tried it!), graphic design is fun, and so much more.

Posted by: RedBirdie | October 21, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

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