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Hartwick president defends three-year degree

My guest blogger today is Dr. Margaret L. Drugovich, president of Hartwick College, an independent liberal arts college in Oneonta, N.Y. that launched a three-year bachelor's degree program in February 2009.

There has been something of a back-and-forth in recent weeks on the merits of shortening college from a standard four years to an accelerated three. Former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times, stirring fresh debate on a topic that has percolated in higher education over the past few years. An industry group, the Association of American College and Universities, responded with a letter pointing out the flaws in the three-year model.

Here, then, is a note from Drugovich, who enters the fray with the advantage of having actually implemented a three-year degree at her college.

I am fascinated by the "debate" over the wisdom of offering students the option to pursue their undergraduate degree in three years.


Where is the proof that a student cannot learn in three years what certain countries have said for so long must take four? There is real confusion about the difference between the length of time it takes to complete the degree and the content of the degree itself. There are only two truly important issues in this discussion -- the breadth of the education, and the quality of student outcomes.

As for breadth, a 120 credit bachelor's degree is a 120 credit bachelor's degree, whether it takes three or four (or five or six) years to complete. The current debate exposes the fact that some in the education community have more tolerance for extending the time to graduate than they have for shortening it. Colleges do not promote the fact of five- and six-year undergraduate degrees. That is because most students who take longer to complete their undergraduate degree (or who never graduate at all) often extend the period of study because they can't get the courses they need, or can't afford to complete the experience. Can anyone actually argue that this a better educational approach than an intentional and well-supported three years of study that resulted in degree completion?

Whether it is three, four of five years, it is the quality and intentionality of the experience, and the support provided, that predicts good student outcomes. If you do not reduce the content or requirements, and if you maintain the quality of the offering, there is no debate about the wisdom of giving students the three-year choice.

You only have to review the study on Who Borrows Most recently released by the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center to convince yourself that we need to do more to provide access to higher education. Among dependent students at private, not-for-profit colleges with different levels of family income under $100,000, at least 24 percent graduate with debt of $30,500. Private colleges across the country do a great job of supporting high need students -- the three-year degree is a way for us to bridge the gap between middle income students and the liberal arts education that prepares them for their future. This is real access.

More study? Sure. That is what lifelong learning is all about. But forcing students into a familiar frame rather than giving them a choice of how long they spend achieving their degree serves our interests more than theirs.

This debate reminds me that people always seem to love the car they drive but it is time for an open mind and a more student centered automobile.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  June 7, 2010; 9:50 AM ET
Categories:  Administration , Pedagogy  | Tags: 3-year degree, Hartwick College three-year degree, Trachtenberg three-year degree, three-year bachelor's, three-year college degree  
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As Dr. Drugovich points out there are lots of opportunities to make it take longer and a lot of reasons for it to take less time. If the school looked at the cost of college right now, taking a bit longer is not helping the students much even if they graduate and work right away. Most students are up to their chins in debt when they leave college whether they graduate or not.

Posted by: rmtaylor2 | June 7, 2010 8:57 PM | Report abuse

The UK gets along just fine with a 3 year degree.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | June 7, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

I went to Hartwick twenty years ago when it seemed to be very unusual for a student to stick around more than four years. Imagine my surprise when I joined the working world and met people who admitted to being on the five and six year plan.

Honestly, I don't see what the big deal is. It's a program that will not work for every student, every program, or every university, but it will work for the same students who would otherwise be willing to double up with a double major in order to feel challenged, and it would work for the same students who sacrificed to attain scholarships and aid.

Schools like George Washington see it as a critique of the way they do business. Unfortunately, comparing George Washington to Hartwick is like comparing apples and oranges. George Washington is more concerned with building prestige on a world stage. Hartwick is more interested in becoming something special known to a select few.

In a small town like Oneonta that does not have the same off-campus opportunities as a place like Washington, DC, the three-year strategy encourages the growth of a larger student body that isn't primarily interested in playing Oneonta beer golf. Hartwick correctly identified that students with the motivation and intelligence to double up are more likely to enrich the academic environment than some of their traditional student body.

One final thing -

I would much rather graduate with three years worth of loans from Hartwick than four or five years from George Washington. Both will earn me the same salary five years out of college, and I would argue two decades later that Hartwick would earn me more.

Posted by: rnorwood01 | June 7, 2010 11:35 PM | Report abuse

As always, the media "argument" sails past the beliefs held in common.

The AAC&U argues against reducing the number of credit hours in degrees and says that completion is a much more important policy goal than acceleration. I suspect that President Drugovitch would agree with those points; she certainly does not contradict them.

The real strength of American higher education is its range of options - public and private, specialized and applied and general. Acceleration is a useful option, but it is not going to have a Bologna-like effect on American college culture. Let it take hold, and let students try it. If it really is a better option for the vast majority of students, then students will go there all on their own. In the meantime, let's not change federal financial aid policy to make it harder for students to qualify for a fourth year of aid. Let competition and innovation work their magic.

Posted by: drrico | June 8, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Some schools in Europe have shorter programs simply because they only take classes in their major for the most part. The depth and quality of their high school education helps make up for the difference. Students who just take classes for their college career and do not take advantage of internships or co-op programs are just asking to work at Starbucks when they graduate. Also any sort of technical or science degree requires many labs that are difficult to compress. Maybe if you major in Communications or Womans Studies or Philosophy of Religion you can do it in three months, but those are fluff degrees anyways.

Posted by: kschur1 | June 8, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

I did my BS in three years, way back in the 1970s. And it was a double major to boot (SUNY Albany, Geology and Chemistry 1978).

This was the smartest thing I ever did. I was tired of measuring my life in semesters and wanted to move on to real adulthood. I could not do that while surrounded by a bunch of spoiled, self indulgent whiners.

Posted by: gwcross | June 8, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

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