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The Best Three Years of My Life….

- May 25, 2010

There’s an interesting op ed in the NY Times today proposing that the normal undergraduate experience in the United States be shortened from “four years to three”:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/opinion/25Trachtenberg.html?th&emc=th. The way the authors propose to do this is essentially to cram the fourth year into summer terms and – I’m guessing here – January terms and the like. They present this as a win-win situation: schools can get more tuition dollars, more students get a chance to attend college, students rack up less debt and can start working earlier, and universities can get all year use out of their facilities. (Although how this would work in conjunction with reports that students are “already having trouble graduating in four years”:http://www.10news.com/news/23664488/detail.html due to a lack of course offerings, classroom space, etc. is another matter.)

I’ll leave it to others to debate the merits of this particular proposal (and feel free to use the comments section below to do so), but I must admit the op-ed didn’t go in the potentially more interesting direction I was expecting from the headline. I was expecting the authors to argue that rather than cram a fourth year into the summers, we could just redefine a BA to mean three years of undergraduate education. This would raise the interesting question: do undergraduates really need a fourth year of undergraduate education in an era when so many go on to post-graduate work?

Let’s define the current typical undergraduate experience as 8 courses per year, for a total of 32 classes. Roughly speaking, let’s say students have to devote half of those courses to their major/minor/certificate granting courses, a quarter to getting a liberal arts education, and a quarter to electives. Now let’s suppose in our new, three year BA world, students are expected to take 9 courses a year instead of 8 – that leaves us with 27 courses. If we cut the “liberal arts requirements” by 1 course to 7, we could have 16 courses for one’s major/minor/certificate granting courses, still leaving time for 4 electives, or two in your first year and one in each of the second and third years.

But my guess is that 16 courses for one’s major is actually very high. Most places are probably (please correct me if I’m wrong) closer to 10-12 courses. If we fixed majors at 12 courses, then we could go back to 8 liberal arts requirements, and still give students 7 courses for electives. So actually, there’s quite a lot of flexibility.

So what are some possible objections?

First, students would have to pick their majors at the end of their Freshman year. While a radical concept to many, I spent six years advising Freshman at Harvard who had to do just that, and it ended up working out fine in the vast majority of cases, and I suspect no worse than for students who have to pick their major at the end of their second year. And let’s face it, in many parts of the rest of the world (and some places in the US as well), students essentially pick their undergraduate major _before_ they arrive on campus, applying to specific degree programs.

Second, such a plan might eliminate the ability of students to pursue a minor. The trade-off, however, would be that you would have an extra year of life to pursue another subject should you so desire. So if you really want to be an economics major with a politics minor, do econ as an undergraduate and then do an MA in political science (available “now at NYU!”:http://politics.as.nyu.edu/page/masters). I’m pretty sure most people will learn more from a one year intensive MA in a given subject (especially one that requires a thesis) than they will from a minor, and this way people who do not want a minor don’t have to spend another year of tuition fees just so other people have the opportunity to get a minor.

Third, this plan might make it harder for students to learn languages if they have so few electives. I have a few ideas in this regard. First, this has always been a trade-off for people who want to learn languages – I spent 7 semesters studying Russian as an undergraduate, and consequently ended up with something like two electives in four years. Second, perhaps in this new “three-year” model, schools could offer pass/fail language courses for students who did not want the classes to count towards their degree, but still wanted to learn the language. (As an aside, I think this is a good idea regardless of whether it is included as part of the three year model.) Moreover, I would again suggest that the fourth year could be useful here. I think I would probably have learned more Russian in the 4 years after graduating from high school had I spent 4 semester in college taking Russian followed by a year at a Russian university than I did in 7 semesters in the United States.

Which brings us to our fourth concern: how does this effect study abroad programs? Here again there are a couple good options. One would be that study abroad could gradually transition into a fourth year option. Finished your BA in three years at NYU? Go get a Masters in Economics at NYU-London, operated in conjunction with the LSE! (To be clear, this does not yet exist, but would be the kind of thing we could create). Second, we would just need to work harder at continuing to make study abroad courses count towards requirements at home institutions.

Finally, one might note that I left the ubiquitous Freshman writing class out of my list of courses above. Fine – make that required of all students, but don’t count it towards one’s degree. Simple pass/fail that you have to pass by end of your second year or you don’t get to continue on to your last year.

So there you have it: the three year BA. More students get a chance to go school, and each one pays less tuition. For those for whom the BA is a last stop, might three years not be enough liberal arts education anyways? And for those going on to graduate work, I’m sure we can come up with lots of good ways to continue their training, especially if it involves tuition dollars and more letters after their names.

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