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Professor Argues The Merits of the Three Year Degree

For most colleges, it's a fairly cut-and-dry set of options: the two-year associate degree, or the four-year bachelor degree. Which do you choose? What if there was a third choice? What if you could obtain a more focused, direct form of the bachelor degree program, with all of the well-rounded higher level education but none of the peripherals, and at a cost a bit closer to a two-year technical degree? It's closer to reality than you may think: many universities today are considering condensing some bachelor degrees into a three-year program.

Today, the New York Times published a review of Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education, a book by University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Zemsky in which he makes a case for major reform in American higher education -- namely, transforming the standard college degree program from four years down to a "three-year baccalaureate." According to Zemsky, one of the main reasonings behind this idea is to clear students' paths for post-graduate work: "With more and more Americans pursuing advanced degrees, it makes sense to look for ways to shorten the undergraduate portion of their post-secondary educations." Zemsky likens the senior year of undergraduate studies to the senior year of high school, a point at which many students are burned out and view the year there as something of a waste.

But what about community colleges? With the major push toward the community college system lately, wouldn't they feel left out in the cold when four-year institutions start offering slimmed down degrees? Zemsky acknowledges they may feel that way, but he urges them to think of themselves as a viable piece of a larger education puzzle. "Though the community colleges will see themselves as threatened," he says, "a nationally adopted three-year baccalaureate degree could well prove to be a boon to them by clearly identifying and funding them as the places where students go to complete their precollegiate education... Community colleges could continue to provide the first year of collegiate instruction for students of limited means as well as students seeking a low-risk higher education portal."

The idea of the three-year degree program has been gathering support among students slowly but surely for a while now, but so far it has been a hard sell for professors and administrators who worry about financial implications or a loss of total "college experience" for students. That said, with the support of a professor as influential as Zemsky -- according to the article, he was nominated to participate in Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education during the Bush administration -- others may soon follow suit. Already, Arizona State University is putting a plan for three-year programs before the education board; more schools are likely not far behind. The tides may be turning already.

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