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Nothing is straight-forward in higher ed these days—3 –year degrees; and ED/EA is back

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What a difference one week can make! Last week it was praise and admiration for Sewanee and Ursinus—as one slashed its price and the other “opted out” of the admissions frenzy.

This week we see heard more about three-year degrees and today we learned Harvard and Princeton will once again place more emphasis on early applicants and an early applications process (all in the name of access and alleviating anxiety for students). Both of these developments illustrate the twists and turns in the higher ed world these days.

Let’s begin with the Washington Post’s Dan de Vise’s eight suggestions of “How to fix higher education.” This article got quite a bit of attention—deservedly so. There are some very good ideas about “fixing” higher ed included, but I take issue with the emphasis on three-year degrees.

Why?

First, it is my belief that most three-year degree proposals are gimmicks—a sort of shell-game—that will have the unintended consequences of pushing more of what we should be teaching in college into the high schools. The focus on three-year degrees makes me wonder if folks are completing unaware of the conversation going on simultaneously about deemphasizing, or, at least, taking a more rational approach to AP accumulation at the high school level. What happened to trying to dial back some of the pressure we are placing on high school students? Won’t forcing more of what should be learned in college down to high schools achieve just the opposite?

My next, and perhaps greater, concern is that the whole idea and talk of the three-year degree furthers the commodification of the college degree. It suggests that the credential and the time to completion is the only thing that matters. It suggests that there is something inefficient about the four year experience. I remain unconvinced of the inefficiency of the four year experience—developmentally and educationally. Furthermore, the idea that college is all about classroom learning seems to undervalue the other significant learning that occurs in college (study abroad, internships, research, athletics, music, theatre, community service, Greek life, etc). Three year degrees further commercialize higher ed, further the commodification of the college degree and are altogether an knee-jerk reaction. I mean, seriously, the last time I checked we just moved to reporting six year graduation rates (a move I find regrettable, but…) because some of the most influential colleges and universities performed so poorly for four and five year grad rates.

And, how about the renewed emphasis on early decision and early action we learned about today? Insider Higher Ed announced Harvard’s and Princton’s renewed emphasis on all things early today. Is anyone surprised by this? This illustrates that college admissions is a highly competitive, highly-charged, high-stakes endeavor. This really should not surprise anyone. This move reinforces the thrust of my op-ed “Souls for Sale” in Inside Higher Ed. The closer a practice comes to impacting your own efforts the easier it is to defend. I understand why Princeton and Harvard are retreating…and anyone who understands the pressures of this endeavor should, too. None of us has to like it, but we should understand it.

Nothing is straight-forward in higher ed these days.

Your thoughts are welcome.

Kent Barnds

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