New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Trachtenberg on Three-Year Degrees

By Philip DiSalvio and NEJHE Staff


In this installment of NEJHE‘s New Directions for Higher Education series, Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviews Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus & University Professor of Public Service at George Washington University.

NEJHE launched the series in 2013 to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices. Click here to read previous installments of this series.

The context

The traditional American four-year undergraduate degree goes back to British custom and the four-year undergraduate degree adopted by Harvard College in 1652. While England has long since gone to the three-year undergraduate degree, American colleges remain tied to the traditional four-year model.

The 29-nation European Union Bologna Declaration urges universities to phase out four- and five-year bachelor’s degrees in favor of the three-year degree path, and discussion has intensified about the efficacy of the traditional four-year undergraduate degree.

Some see the three-year undergraduate degree as the next step in the evolution of American higher education. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, in line to chair the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has referred to the three-year degree as higher education’s equivalent of the fuel-efficient car. Compressing the academic calendar to 36 months could presumably add efficiencies to the costs of a college education and get students into the workforce that much quicker.

This reform option has captured the attention of a number of state policymakers. Rhode Island and Washington recently passed laws ordering the development of three-year undergraduate degrees. Other states, including Indiana and Ohio, have tried to do the same. On the national level, President Obama has urged consideration of the three-year undergraduate degree. Accelerating the pace of completion and opening up more seats in the higher education pipeline is seen by the administration as a way to regain the world lead in college attainment.

The three-year degree is not without skeptics. Some argue that the three-year plan isn’t feasible, since many students struggle to graduate in even four years. Others suggest that regardless of the model employed to deliver a three-year undergraduate degree, students face significant financial, family and college-preparation challenges to finishing in a compressed time frame.

In a recent policy brief published by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, “The Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree: Reform Measure or Red Herring,” Daniel Hurley and Thomas Harnisch point out that “the shortened time frame does not sufficiently align with many of the challenges facing the large proportion of today’s students.”

While Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities does not, in theory, argue against a compressed three-year undergraduate model, she observes that it would only serve a very small subset of the student population and warns against not squandering what she calls “the most important resource of all: student’s own high effort time on task.”

As the president of George Washington University from 1988 to 2007 and author of numerous books including Presidencies Derailed and Big Man on Campus: A University President Speaks Out on Higher Education, Trachtenberg is not afraid to be outspoken (he was recently called out for suggesting that women who drink too much become vulnerable to sexual assault). Here, Trachtenberg shares his views on the traditional four-year undergraduate degree, the opportunities and challenges afforded by the three-year undergraduate model and key issues that policymakers and higher education leaders should consider as the three-year undergraduate degree becomes a reform option for American college campuses.

The Interview

DiSalvio: You have said that the essential assumption lying in the center of the American university system—a four-year undergraduate degree—needs to change. Why?

Trachtenberg: We’re no longer living in John Dunster’s era. When he came over from Cambridge University to Cambridge, Massachusetts, he left a university which had a four-year B.A. degree. Only a few years later, Cambridge itself and Oxford University switched to three-year B.A. degrees. Had he come over a few years later than when he did, America would have a three-year degree. The four-year undergraduate degree is not something that was handed down from Mount Sinai.

The model is the model we started with in the Colonial era and it was a perfectly fine for its time and it served America well. As distinct from a vocational program or one leading to certification in professional studies such as law, medicine, architecture and the like, the idea of a liberal arts degree is arbitrary and derives from a historical academic model. History has changed and the change in the value of degree is now primarily social—and perhaps intended to keep people out of the workplace rather than preparing them for it. Speeding up the preparation would allow someone to enter the work market that much earlier. Resistance to it might come from those already in the workplace.

I’m not sure that everyone needs to go to a more abbreviated degree, but I think the option should be more prevalent. Just as I think many people who get dragged into four-year degree programs shouldn’t be there—for some reluctantly—but they’re not quite sure what to do with themselves and they would be far better served if they pursued a two-year degree.

Just as a footnote to this conversation, we have thousands of Americans who have finished more than 60 credits toward a degree and then dropped out of college with no degree. By contrast, if they had a twin who had gone to a community college instead of to a four-year college and their twin put in two years of college, that person would have an A.A. degree. That person at the end of two years would have job opportunities because they could check the box “yes” about completion.

So we are punishing somebody for having started a four-year degree and leaving after two years, rather than rewarding them for the two years they finished. My point is we ought to take a look at anybody who has done 60 credits and see if it isn’t at all possible to give them an associate degree and then after the associate degree, people ought to go on and do the additional two years and get the B.A. or the B.S. degree, as the case may be. I think that’s a bookkeeping change we could make that would have a very positive effect on our apparent productivity but more importantly on our completion rate and on the service we provide to America and to our students.

My point is illustrated with the example of myself as a younger man. I wore a 32 regular suit and today I’m wearing a 40 regular suit. I put on weight and got bulkier and can’t wear the same suit. In the same regard, I think we ought to have more options. I think it ought to be made easier, because it already is possible. If you go to Harvard College and you’re in a hurry for whatever reason, and you’re prepared to devote yourself to going to summer school, you can finish the requirements for the B.A. in three years. But we don’t make it easy on you. What we ought to do is make it easier. There are always going to be people who might want to do four years.

I had lunch yesterday with a classmate of mine at Columbia who stayed on for a fifth year after he got his B.A. degree, went to the engineering school and picked up a bachelor of science degree. Of course he had all the basic requirements done. They were able to give him a B.A. and a B.S. degree in five years.

When I was at Boston University—and it goes on to this day—we established a six-year B.A./ M.D. degree. When I came to George Washington, I reflected on my experience at B.U. and I thought that the six-year B.S./M.D. degree was too compressed. I thought the pressure that it put on students was too intense in six years, but seven years would work. We put in an experimental seven-year B.A. /M.D. program at George Washington over 25 years ago and it’s running like a charm. The graduates are indistinguishable from the eight-year people—four years B.A. and four years M.D. degree. I could never get the medical school to do it for the entire class, but only for a pilot program of 15 students. They didn’t want to be seen as unusual. But we have years and years of data to demonstrate you can do this in seven years rather than eight and yet we are reluctant to implement that across the board because we don’t want to be different.

So I think there ought to be options. First, more people should be doing two-year degrees instead of doing four-year bachelor’s degrees. Many people should be able to get their bachelor’s in three years. There are going to be some people who want to do four and even five, as in the B.A./B.S. model. What I’m calling for is more flexibility in a more fluid time. That’s my case for the three-year degree.

DiSalvio: Some higher education leaders argue that shrinking the traditional four-year undergraduate model undermines the value of the undergraduate degree and the quality of college learning. How do you respond to that?

Trachtenberg: They presumably have a North Star that’s informing them, but I don’t see anything in scripture that says four years or three years. I have no doubt that four years of education is more than three years of education. So my response to that is: What do you think of a five-year B.A. degree? If four is good, five is better. And if five is better, let’s make it six or seven?

A lot of the criticism of a three-year baccalaureate is that students will take 25% fewer courses. Not so, they will take the same number of courses in less time and save tuition dollars. Right now, most of our educational infrastructure lies fallow in the summer. We could increase access and reduce costs by operating—educating—all year.

Additionally, more people are going on to earn graduate degrees or additional forms of education after their baccalaureate than ever. In our father’s day, if you graduated from high school, it might have been sufficient. But if you graduated from college, most people—not everybody, of course—but most people got their degree, they went to work and they had jobs and families, and they didn’t open a book again, at least not a scholarly book.

Today, many professionals are required to do continuing education. Our expectation is a lifetime of continuous learning and people who have genuine ambition don’t stop at the baccalaureate. So if your last degree was going to be a bachelor’s degree, maybe you can do the four years. But if you’re going to go from college on to law school and that takes three years or you’re going go to medical school and that takes four years, at what point do we say life is for living? We have created a structure in which we are preparing for life for so long that by the time we get around to living, there isn’t enough time to do what we want to do. If you take a look at the amount of time it takes to become a specialist in various forms of medicine, it’s extraordinary. People are into middle age before they get to practice.

Take for example, Ph.D. students. I had a note the other day from a student at Michigan saying he was in the sixth year of a Ph.D. in psychology. Remember, he was an undergraduate for four years and he did six years toward the Ph.D. He’s still a student after 10 years.

Essentially what I’m saying is this notion that somehow four years is the perfect amount of time to earn an undergraduate degree is flawed. I don’t want to be seen as a radical, I want to merely call for a reexamination of our degree programs and how long they take—and to look at what the data tell us where the graduates are going and for what purpose.

DiSalvio: You have observed that the idea of a three-year undergraduate degree has come and gone over the years but not enough schools are doing it. Why the relative obscurity? Why haven’t we seen broad-based student participation?

Trachtenberg: We’re in a profession of steady habits as educators. We get locked into a model and we stick with it. Somebody puts up a new idea and sometimes it catches on. But basically it becomes a nail sticking up and somebody goes and gets a hammer and knocks it down.

So I think of the “doctor of arts” degree. It floated around for a while and in fact, at many colleges in America, the professors who are teaching four, six or even eight courses don’t have time for research, aren’t going to be doing research and would be far better served by having a doctor of arts degree in some discipline that would involve certain amounts of pedagogy and teaching rather than further research and dissertation. Many Ph.Ds. are heavy on theory and light on experience. Well, the D.A. degree was the alternative for a while and then it seems to have disappeared. I suspect it will come back some day.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education described a group of Georgetown University faculty wanting to create a Ph.D. in English, which was not focused on going on to become a professor of English in a university. The article described a list of alternative careers that would be value-added if one had a Ph.D. and the skills of an English scholar, but not necessarily an academic.

This is the cause of great disputation and fighting and I don’t understand that. Too many of us in the academy run our disciplines like Soviet factories. We want to make a certain product and we want the world to consume our product, rather than looking at the world and saying what product it needs and then applying ourselves to providing an answer to society’s issue. So I think when one comes up with a new idea and it meets great resistance in the academy, we tend to be very peer-deferential. By the time somebody spends six or seven or eight or nine years getting a Ph.D., they are very socialized and by the time they get tenure they have been subservient for so long that it’s hard to change their character. It’s like pledging into a fraternity and the sentiment is that “anybody who follows me is going to have to go through the pledging period, too.”

DiSalvio: What challenges do students and families of students face in completing an undergraduate degree in a shortened timeframe?

Trachtenberg: First of all, even with the way things are, many people don’t finish the four-year degree in four years because they have to work—or have family commitments or other reasons. So we see people flopping over into the fifth and even the sixth year before they finish their undergraduate degree. So if you say you were going to truncate it to the three-year degree, many won’t finish it in the three years. They will take four years to do the three years.

But how do you pay for it? How do you do it all within the context of the rest of your life? College is not the way it was back in my day where you went off to a four-year liberal arts college and you sat there for four years. Today, people are married, people have children and they’re working. It’s a different world. So I think the problem is always money. Money turns out to be the challenge in people’s lives. It turns out to be the mother’s milk of academic excellence at universities. So figuring out how to pay for it is the challenge.

And a footnote to that is the federal regulations and the Pell grant regulations are based on the assumption that it’s going to be a four-year degree. Frequently the federal regulations won’t allow students to use loan money or other resources to go to summer school so they can’t accelerate their degree. So we would have to take a look at the whole gestalt to see all the impediments in the road and how you can change them to make acceleration possible.

DiSalvio: What obstacles do institutions face in adopting a three-year undergraduate degree completion model?

Trachtenberg: I think to some extent it’s the anxiety and the problem of being the outlier. So if a school adopts the three-year undergraduate model, there is a fear that when parents and students are looking at choosing schools, they’ll see that it doesn’t look the same as everybody else and that could be a problem.

I see that Goucher College is no longer requiring either SAT scores or high school transcripts and that students can apply by sending in a video. I thought to myself this is either going to turn out to be a terrible idea or Goucher is going to be overwhelmed by adventurous students who want to try out this pioneering institution. But I can imagine the mail that the president of Goucher is getting from alumni and I can imagine accrediting agencies and other third parties asking questions.

The only way you know whether these things will work sometimes is to do them. Schools may say you don’t have to give us the SAT scores, but you can do it voluntarily. Immediately of course, the student SAT scores go up because people with bad SAT scores don’t send them in and people with good SAT scores do.

So tinkering with all the mechanisms creates obstacles. You worry about what the media will say. You worry about what the alumni are going to say. You worry about what the moms and dads are going to say. You worry about what graduate schools, professional schools who admit your B.A. graduates, are going to think about admitting these students.

I once had a student at George Washington who was absolutely brilliant. He had a 4.0 GPA and had taken the bachelor’s degree. Although I’m not absolutely certain, I believe he majored in criminal justice, a somewhat unusual degree. He applied for a Rhodes scholarship to go to Oxford and people were very uncomfortable because it wasn’t a degree that the dons at Oxford recognized. I was on this election committee and I remember unpacking the transcript and saying that while it is true this person majored in criminal justice, it needed to be translated for purposes of the committee. I translated his field as sociology. If we looked at what the student had actually taken during the course of the four years, he took history and mathematics and English and general education courses. So again, we get too caught up in labels and don’t get past the appearance to the substance of the issue. It’s a question of becoming more flexible, although I must tell you that having made that speech and thinking about Goucher, I’m saying to myself, what would I think? Would I have put that program forward if I were the president?

DiSalvio: As policymakers and higher education leaders increasingly consider major efficiency and cost reforms associated with the three-year undergraduate degree model, what must be considered in light of questions about educational merit, student achievement and the unique mission of higher education institution?

Trachtenberg: I think they need to be focused on being more flexible, on recognizing that not everybody wears a size 42 regular suit and that students seek education and credentials for many purposes.

It’s not an accident that the Ph.D. in clinical psychology, for example, now has a companion which is a doctor of psychology degree for practitioners. There will always be people who go on to get the Ph.D., either because they simply want it, or they think they may want an academic career or they want to do it because they think it’s going to make them a better practitioner. But the fact is that the doctor of psychology degree allows somebody to go on and add value as a clinical psychologist and it takes less time. You have to have a body of theory to be in any kind of profession but you don’t have to be as exquisitely informed as somebody who wants to devote an additional two years to the program.

I think that tells us something. There are a lot of people who are nurse practitioners today who are providing medical care to people, where formerly physicians used to exclusively provide that medical care. We simply don’t have the money and the time to train all the physicians that we need, considering increasing insurance availability and an aging population.

Instead we’re seeing different groups taking on different responsibilities. For example, Ph.Ds. or licensed psychologists are now increasingly allowed to prescribe drugs in many jurisdictions, where for many years the psychiatrists argued that psychologists were incapable of prescribing drugs. But eventually, state by state, things have changed. Pharmacists are increasingly playing a practitioner role, well beyond simply dispensing pills. So the world is changing.

Take for example, the profession of law. Some people are arguing for a two-year law degree, rather than a three-year law degree—one of those people being President Obama. And meanwhile, we see legal assistants and computer programs that are impacting the practice of law. It’s not the way it was when I went into the profession—it’s very different. We are in the most dynamic time in the history of higher education since probably the invention of the printing press.

So we have three-year M.D. degrees at NYU and Texas Tech and Mercer and U.C. Davis. We see the upending of the 1910 Flexner Report and the introduction of new ways of credentialing physicians. We see Calgary University and McMaster University in Canada doing three-year M.D. degrees. We might look at the outcomes data of that over a period of time and that could help us decide whether we need to continue the four-year degree.

At NYU—surely nobody can question the integrity of NYU—the students have a choice. If you go there and you want to do a four-year degree, you can do it, or you can apply and if you’re accepted, they let you do the M.D. degree in three years. For different people, it’s going to be more or less appropriate. If you know you’re going to do an M.D./Ph.D. program and you’re going into some discipline that calls for a long, extensive residency, perhaps one might save the year on the M.D. degree.

What I’m saying is that we need to be more imaginative and less rigid in the way we do our work.

Past installments

of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing:


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