Does College Need to be Four Years?

Higher Ed Gamma

Remember Bluto’s classic line in Animal House:  “Christ.  Seven years of college down the drain.”  I sure do.  I laughed at the time, but I’ve since come to realize that, according to the last statistics I could find, over 20 percent of students at public 4-year institutions take seven or more years to graduate or drop out.

You’ve heard the arguments before, I suspect:  “College Doesn’t Need to Take Four Years.”  College, say Wall Street Journal contributors, Scott L. Wyatt, the executive director of online education in the Utah System of Higher Education and Allen C. Guelzo, the prominent Civil War era historian, insist, has become an unnecessarily long and “costly straitjacket.”

Mastery of such vocational fields as physical therapy, accounting, marketing, hospitality management, and culinary arts ought not “require a uniform four year program,” the authors claim.

Keep the gen ed requirements, but ditch the electives, automatically eliminating a full year of instruction and its costs.  Or encourage undergraduates to pick up the elective credits more cheaply at a technical or trade school, where they can also acquire a marketable license or professional certificate which “would give students more career options and deepen preparation for their intended careers.”

I fear that something somewhat like what the authors suggest is already occurring.  Even though credit by exam hasn’t really caught on, rapidly expanding dual degree/early college programs allow high schoolers to pick up college credits, while generous credit for prior learning programs reduce the number of hours required for a degree.

At my university, an overwhelming majority of undergraduates place out of freshman composition, while growing numbers substitute credits earned from digital diploma mills for gen ed courses previously taken on campus.  The UT response:  1) Offer “accelerated” low-cost asynchronous online versions of gen ed classes with little regular, substantive interaction with or feedback from a faculty member; and 2) Create highly compressed “mini-mester” courses during various mid-year breaks.

Others may disagree, but I don’t consider such classes equivalent to our regular, semester-long in-person classes.

When established institutions mimic the bottom feeders, how can anyone legitimately claim that academic quality is Job 1?

Do we really want to diminish the value of 4-year colleges? Do we genuinely believe it’s in young people’s best interest to pursue an alt credential of uncertain value?

It’s perhaps not surprising that a significant number of Wall Street Journal readers strongly and stridently endorse the opinion essay’s recommendations.  Wrote one:  “Colleges are businesses and to generate revenue create more ‘requirements’ for higher profit.” Claimed another: “Honestly, in the age of the internet you can self-educate yourself on any elective type course.”  “Why make you take courses/credits which will do nothing for your future career, and which are of no interest to you? Total waste of time — and money,” argued a third.

I understand why state legislatures want to accelerate time to degree and create cheaper, faster pathways to a marketable credential. But when an eminent scholar whose books and articles I admire and who currently directs a program on politics and statesmanship at Princeton questions the worth of a four-year program, I must ask: Why?

Does he genuinely consider electives a waste of time?  Certainly, many of the piece’s comments strongly disagree.  Wrote one:  “Electives help round out a personal’s exposure to the arts, sciences, etc., so when they are conversing with co-workers, clients and others they can be part of the conversations and be creative thinkers for solutions.”  Said another:  “those electives informed a lifetime of interests and reading outside of work.  They were anything but ‘a waste of time.’’  College, each argues, shouldn’t be a job-qualifying trade school.

Those who argue in behalf of an abbreviated college education tend to fall into one of the following camps.  There are those who:

1. Genuinely believe that 4 (or 5 or 6) undergraduate years is unnecessarily long and needlessly expensive.
2. Favor an even more stratified (or varied) postsecondary educational system where only a small segment of the population earn a genuine college degree.  
3. Want an approach closer to the UK and continental European model, in which the liberal arts portion of a college education takes place in high school.
4. Consider the current system ill-adapted to the needs of today’s non-traditional student who must balance academics with their work and care-giving responsibilities and who can’t really afford the established model.

Where do I stand?  After all, I graduated from college in three years and never regretted that lost year – though, of course, I never left the academy.  I agree with each of the following statements:

  • Time to degree is too long.  Currently, less than half of undergraduates complete a bachelor’s in 4 years and the financial and opportunity cost for those years is high.
  • Current courseload expectations are unrealistic.   Most undergrads can’t take 5 courses simultaneously and do them justice.  Among the consequences: Taking shortcuts, whether that means enrolling in gut classes with light workloads and easy grading or not completing required reading.
  • Many students enroll in classes that aren’t meaningful to them.  These are courses chosen because they fit a student’s schedule or have open seats or are perceived as easy or entertaining.
  • Lecture and discussion courses comprise too much of the undergraduate learning experience.  Many college students would benefit from expanded for-credit experiential learning opportunities, whether study abroad, mentored research, internships, clinical experiences, or community service.

So what might the future bring?

Like it or not, the current 120-credit hour tripartite curricular model, divided roughly equally between gen ed, major, and elective courses, has become problematic.  It lacks coherence and consists of too many check-box courses.  Campuses, in my view, should experiment with alternatives, such as:

  • More 4-, 5-, and 6-credit courses that include more active, hands-on, and problem- and project-based learning.
  • Structured, career-aligned degree pathways that consist of more integrated and synergistic courses.
  • New kinds of credit-bearing, degree-fulfilling classes and learning experiences.  Examples might include courses that contribute to professional identity formation; skills classes in areas of high employer demand (for example, in data analysis, industry-specific software, and project management); significantly expanded experiential learning opportunities; communities of inquiry, communities of practice, solver communities, and maker spaces; and my personal favorite, courses or clusters intentionally designed to speak to primal, existential, and timely issues, such as equity, identity, intimacy, loss, pain, power, and relationships.

If you glance at the Wall Street Journal comments, you’ll see that many readers are convinced that 4-year model exists for one reason only:  To extract the maximum amount of revenue from students, parents, and government.  That, of course, is grossly misleading, since tuition and fees only cover a portion of the cost of a college education.

Still, we ignore even mistaken beliefs at our risk. If anything like the 4-year model is to persist, then it’s incumbent on us to do more to ensure that those four years are truly meaningful.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Steven Mintz
Show on Jobs site:
Disable left side advertisement?:
Is this diversity newsletter?:
Is this Career Advice newsletter?:
Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Monday, February 6, 2023
Diversity Newsletter publication date:
Monday, February 6, 2023