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Academic Issue: The "Four-Year Degree"

This is not an argument against undergraduate education or the bachelor’s degree. It is an argument against the unreasonable expectation of finishing in four years.

One could argue that our higher education credential is fundamentally flawed. Why the Bachelor’s degree of 120 (more or less) hours? (no longer just B.A. or B.S. but with lots of different letters following the B.) Isn’t that essentially anachronistic? We’ve been used since the deep Middle Ages. We don’t hold to much else from then, so why the term and concept of a “Bachelor’s” degree (itself man-centered, and heaven knows we don’t want any gender-bias now). So why do?




For one, it’s controllable. Everyone knows it. Eight neat little fifteen-hour semesters. Mathematically easy. All the programs have been built around it. It makes money for colleges—there’s a disincentive to do Prior Learning, condense hours, go to a competency-based model.

But assuming we stay with 120 (give or take) hours, why does that work out to four years? Why do we even still call it a four-year degree?

I propose that the four-year degree is harmful. It emphasizes time, not learning. It does not take into account that a student would have a good reason to take longer, and not because they are indecisive or slow or lazy. It overlooks pandemics, life realities, financial contingencies, a year off for a co-op or important internship, a student wanting to take a class over not because of failure so much as realizing they didn’t learn what they should have despite a passing grade, changing a major or transferring colleges.

It basically says, “You took longer than four years; something’s wrong with you.” It says “hurry up, life’s a race; the degree is a contest.”

Now, whenever I take a stand, I have to put up my caveats. I’m not talking about taking ten years to finish a degree (although that is no crime, just unnecessarily costly). I insisted my son finish in four years because it was a private college and I was paying the bills. And, for most 18-year-olds, they should have four years as a goal.

But LIFE happens. Not everyone who enters college can take fifteen hours the first one or two semesters. Students work (too many hours, but that’s a different essay).

The system I work in, and others I’ve heard of, push the 15-hour schedule and I strongly believe it’s a detriment. It’s to “get Momentum” and ensure the students progress at a rate at which they are less likely to drop out. All these pieces make up for a complicated puzzle. Our students are more likely to drop out due to family and life than academics. The largest reason for our students totally withdrawing from college is working too many hours. Have they been advised to take too many hours? Do they have unrealistic expectations? Yes, yes.

We can do better.

And yes, I took 4.5 years to graduate "back in the day." I had a double major, worked full time, and went to summer school twice.

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