Another Perspective on the Three-Year Baccalaureate Degree

Earlier this year, I posted a review of Saving Higher Edu­cation: The Integrated, Competency-Based Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree Pro­gram. The book describes an alternative to the two most common “three-year” baccalaureate programs: the Accelerated model and the Prior Learning model. In the Accelerated Model, students essentially take overloads and full summer loads in order to complete four years of work in three years. In the Prior Learning Model, students receive credit not just for transfer credits but also for work and other experience, allowing them, in effect, to start the baccalaureate program with something close to the equivalent of a year’s credits “earned.” In contrast, in the Integrated, Competency-Based Model, developed by the authors who are faculty members at Southern New Hampshire, great pains are taken to eliminate “redundancies” in the curriculum: that is, students are expected to demonstrate a set of competencies or skill sets that are among the learning outcomes of a given program, but class time is not given over to repeated work on those competencies when they recur across courses within a program.

In my review, I attempted not just to explain not just the rationales for all three models but also to highlight their advantages and disadvantages. My ultimate concern about all “three-year” programs is that as we try to find ways to make a university education more affordable, we may be undermining the value of the degrees that we are awarding. In essence, the time invested in earning a degree is inescapably part of its value, for much of learning is cumulative, a gradually developing awareness that coalesces over time. Although the corporatization of higher education has caused us to regard the credit-hour as a cost-unit, it is conceptually a recognition of how learning occurs, one way of indicating how much someone holding a degree can be expected to have learned. Ironically, in our increasingly corporatized institutions, we are undermining the very thing that should be of most value to employers of our graduates, the actual and the perceived value of their degrees.  Moreover, since the basic cost is much less of a factor in curricular decisions at our elite institutions, this well-intentioned emphasis on increasing affordability at all other institutions has become a factor in the creation of a two-tiered system of higher-education, in which some degrees from some institutions are not just worth more than those from other institutions but are worth increasingly more than those from other institutions. It is the higher-education corollary to the widening income inequality in America.

As further evidence of just how short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive our compression of our curricula is, universities in India are seeking to expand their three-year baccalaureate programs, which have been the commonplace model there, to four-year programs—precisely because the degrees granted by Indian universities are undervalued in comparison to those granted by the Western institutions, and by U.S. institutions in particular. Despite major investments in higher education, Indian universities have not fared well in comparative rankings even among Asian universities. So, expanding the curriculum to four years is being regarded as one way of increasing the rigor and the value of the learning that is occurring at Indian universities. A pilot for this major overhaul of the curriculum is being undertaken at Delhi University, which is regarded as one of the country’s most elite institutions. (Delhi University, by the way, enrolls 400,000 students in 62 colleges—providing just one illustration of the differences in scale in a nation of more than a billion people.) Very predictably, there has been an outcry against this change, with critics charging that increasing institutional revenue at the expense of students, rather than increasing learning, may be the major motive for, or at least the major effect of, this truly major initiative.

To read more about what has been occurring at Delhi University, please see

5 thoughts on “Another Perspective on the Three-Year Baccalaureate Degree

  1. As someone who could have graduated in three years but decided to stay for a fourth, I think this can be valuable for a tiny number of students. But we shouldn’t water down the college curriculum by giving credit for “life experience” or “compentencies.” However, encouraging students to take advanced placement and college classes in high school, and to overload or take summer courses in college, is a valuable thing, even if they don’t graduate early. It gives students more experience with college work, and the added credits give them the flexibility to change majors or experiment with courses outside the norm.

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