Debt isn’t just a burden for older adults anymore. Recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that America’s total student loan debt has reached an all-time high of more than $1 trillion, surpassing the nation’s credit card debt, and comprising more than 6 percent of the US gross domestic product. With nearly 50 million Americans carrying student loan debt (equal to the number collecting Social Security), the high cost of higher education touches most US households.
Yet, for some, entrance to college, once a near-guaranteed ticket to upward social mobility and elite career opportunities, has become a pathway to prolonged financial distress. For instance, a typical 2010 college graduate collected a diploma alongside more than $25,000 in debt and entered one of the most dismal job markets in recent history.
As college administrators, we’re not blind to the crisis of higher education costs. That’s why a number of higher learning institutions are experimenting with programs that will alleviate some of these concerns while still providing a degree that allows recipients to achieve professional-level competency. For example, Wesleyan University and Mary Baldwin College have pioneered programs that condense the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree into three years, but still require 120 credits. Elsewhere, schools are attempting massively open online courses (MOOCs), competency-based education programs and the growth of sub-baccalaureate certificates to emphasis what students learn rather than how they learn it.
While such intentions are admirable, squeezing four years of credits into a three and taking classes with thousands of students does not work for everyone. At the same time, recent budget cuts for community colleges have made shorter and less expensive higher education alternatives increasingly rare. These difficulties, combined with the past decade’s new, advanced instructional technologies, make this an ideal time to look at new forms of credentialing in an evolutionary manner.
At the New England College of Business and Finance, where I serve as president, students typically start their education years after high school graduation, and often after they start their careers and begin supporting families. The typical four-year, full-time study paths don’t necessarily work for these students. Yet, because of constraints of the traditional form of the bachelor credential, these students have no way of reducing their course load, especially if they wish to pursue applied fields such as marketing, allied health and information technology. With these programs, students must still take the full range of liberal arts and elective courses – 120 credits — to earn a degree.
A solution to this problem is to offer not a compressed degree, but a three-year bachelor’s degree that requires only 90 credits to graduate. These programs can focus on the essentials to achieve competency in a specific discipline and can offer a streamlined program of general studies as a complement. Assessments during and after college, including professional certifications, can assure students’ competency, validate their education and give them the opportunity to begin graduate degree programs if they desire.
A three-year degree would eliminate 25 percent of all tuition, book, and living costs associated with four years of college. Combined with the extra year of salary and career advancement, such savings are even greater. Unfortunately, this practice is as logical as it is rare. Not only would this benefit thousands of students, it could also be a boom for community colleges. These institutions often struggle as policy prohibits them from giving students bachelor’s degrees. Three-year bachelor’s degrees would attract a new student population to community colleges and incentivize local governments to provide them additional funding.
Society’s notion that four years is the necessary period of time to attain a proper college education is both arbitrary and outdated. The four-year time frame was first adapted in America by Harvard in 1652, based on the model practiced at the time in Great Britain. Other universities followed a similar design, creating a status quo based on the practices of one school. Since 1652, Great Britain has modernized its university system and now customarily awards bachelor’s degrees for three years of study. Other educational systems have followed suit including those in Canada, India, and nearly 50 European nations. So, why does the US model remain stagnant?
Accreditors should assess the validity of a degree by the competency of its recipients, not the number of credits on their transcript. After all, if post-graduate degrees take anywhere between one and five years to attain, why should all bachelor’s degrees require the exact same amount of time? The question here shouldn’t be “why,” but rather, “why not?”
Of course, there are hurdles. Accreditation would require tremendous effort to ensure three-year programs educate students to a level worthy of a bachelor’s degree, and even given approval, employers may not hire three-year graduates if similarly qualified four-year graduates are available. However, these hurdles can only stand in our way if we are moving forward. The higher education system must change course or it will become an obsolete institution available exclusively to the privileged.
The Department of Education can start by enacting a pilot program that grants Title 4 access to three-year bachelor’s degree programs at a sampling of higher learning institutions. In turn, the government must examine the programs successes and failures, and adapt its best practices. While this is merely just one step in a long process to overhaul higher education, it’s a necessary measure especially given the high cost of higher education. A real effort will eventually yield a system that makes college education more accessible and affordable for everyone. The status quo needs to change and that always takes time. Compared to everything else, patience seems like a very reasonable price.
Howard E. Horton is president of New England College of Business and Finance.