A Degree in Three Revisited

by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President Emeritis, The George Washington University, and Gerald B. Kauvar, Research Professor of public policy and public administration, The George Washington University

Because of increased financial constraints on all State supported and most independent colleges and universities one reads and hears more and more about the wisdom of fully utilizing existing facilities in order to lower costs and expand access.  Legislators and institutional leaders are climbing on the bandwagon.  More and more institutions are exploring ways or exploiting existing ways to encourage students to complete their degrees rapidly.   Opportunities for earning a degree in three years are being publicized and encouraged by college counselors and publicists, and media pundits.

A couple of years ago, we published an op-ed piece in the New York Times which argued for better utilization of our post-secondary institutions by using facilities on a year around basis. For many students, so doing would enlarge the possibilities to earn a degree in three years – not all students, but many students.  And they would save a bit of money by foregoing any tuition increase that would become effective in the fourth year.

The op-ed piece we wrote was widely criticized, though rarely for anything we stated or implied in the article.

A lot of educators and lobbying organizations complained that our proposal would necessarily water down the value of the degree because fewer courses or credits would be required to obtain a baccalaureate degree.  We proposed nothing of the kind.  By offering a full slate of courses for three instead of two semesters each year, more students could be accommodated by the institution and every student would have the opportunity to take the full, existing number of course and credit requirements for graduation.  There would be no need to limit access by charging more for courses in high demand, as has recently been proposed by one institution.

Many faculty members were upset by what they believed was a proposal for increasing their productivity without concomitant increases in remuneration.  A careful reading of the op-ed piece should have allayed their concerns:  we acknowledged the need to hire additional faculty and staff which we pointed out would be paid for by increased tuition revenue.  We didn’t propose indentured servitude; we proposed a way to increase faculty and staff hiring – a jobs program, if you will.

Some readers objected that basing a three year degree on the British model was not a good idea because the British curriculum is rather different from that standard in the U.S.  True enough, but not a rebuttal to an argument we advanced.  We never mentioned the British model.

Others objected that students would be deprived of an opportunity for study abroad, or internships, or employment needed to pay tuition.  Depending on how a year around system was implemented, each of these horribles might come to pass.  But we had in mind that internships and employment and study abroad opportunities abound in the summertime – but so do the numbers of people competing for them.  By encouraging people to take time off during the spring or fall, an institution could moderate the demand in the summer when places are harder to find because more people are looking for them, and increasing the supply in the fall and spring when there are similar ( and often better) opportunities but fewer people seeking them.

Still others objected that families might not be able to take vacations together or spend time together in the summer.  Perhaps true, but many families could take vacations or spend time together during the spring or fall.  And it ignores the fact that after the first year in college, many students spend time in places other than their parental residence, often in the city or town where they attend school.  Encouraging students to take time off other than during the summer months might permit skiing vacations, or allow them to take advantage of seasonal employment opportunities when there is less competition for jobs.   And they might find it easier to obtain useful and interesting internships when not everyone was looking for them.

What’s true for students is true for staff and faculty as well.  Nearly all would have a choice of when to take annual leave.  Some with young children might choose the summer so long as primary and secondary schools cling to less than full use of their facilities and capabilities.  But others might find less crowded vacation spots and less crowded places to pursue research and avocational interests.

What worried a few people is that a good deal of socialization and maturation takes place during a young adult’s college experience, and that leadership opportunities might become scarcer.  We’ve not seen any evidence that students become more mature in four years than they achieve in three, and offering an additional full semester would increase rather than decrease leadership openings.  One might also question the wisdom of paying tuition for an unnecessary fourth year in the belief that an additional year college experience produces a level or kind of socialization or maturation significantly different than the world of work.

Besides, and again; we weren’t arguing or advocating a degree in three for everyone.  We were pointing out the advantages of year around utilization of facilities – which has more rapid degree completion as one of its benefits.

Existing institutions that encourage degree completion in three years have found ways to mitigate most of the horribles anyone imagined or accused us of fomenting.   Surely other institutions can and will learn from their example; we should neither imagine nor fear they would implement a year-around strategy without thought or study.

Our institution, George Washington University, established a joint faculty-student-staff committee to study ways to fully utilize of our facilities. The committee and a large group of subcommittees worked hard from February fifth to May nineteenth 2003, and submitted a report on June 30th.  As requested, they investigated and analyzed options; they did not and were not asked to make recommendations.  (Their report, with all its appendices, is still available on the University’s website.  In the committee’s own words, “the report consists of facts, analysis, and a certain amount of informed rumination.”)

By way of example, the committee demonstrated that if the university required rising juniors to  take a full load of course work in the summer, we could expand enrollment, access, by over 1,000 students a year with no change in class size or teaching load.  After fully accounting for 38 additional full-time faculty at a cost of $4.1 million (in 2003 dollars), and instructional support costs of an additional $1.7 dollars and $.8 million in other costs, the university would have an additional net income of nearly $12 million which could be used to provide scholarship assistance or enhance the educational experience in a myriad of other ways.

A degree in three isn’t necessary for institutions to achieve full utilization of their facilities, add qualified students, hire talented faculty and staff, and reduce the need to build additional facilities.    Imagination and investigation and an open mind are all that’s required; what isn’t needed is knee-jerk criticism or the demolition of straw men in the interests of maintaining the status quo.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is President Emeritus and University Professor of Public Service. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg served as the 15th president of The George Washington University for nearly two decades, from 1988 to August 1, 2007. He came to GW from the University of Hartford (CT), where he had been president for 11 years. Before assuming the presidency of Hartford, Trachtenberg served for eight years at Boston University as vice president for academic services and academic dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Earlier, in Washington, D.C., he was a special assistant for two years to the U.S. Education Commissioner, Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He has been an attorney with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and a legislative aide to former Indiana Congressman John Brademas.

Gerry Kauvar is a research professor of public policy and public administration and special assistant to the president emeritus at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in English literature, literary criticism, and public policy. He served for a quarter century in senior executive positions in the Department of Defense, and was the staff director for the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. He has been a senior administrator at three universities.He received the Presidential Rank Award of meritorious executive, and several Department of Defense honors including both the DoD and Air Force medals for exceptional civil service.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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