Chapter 4: Offer three year Bachelor’s Degrees

The bachelor’s degree in European universities is designated as a three-year program under the Bologna Process. Shorter time to completion of a degree dramatically reduces college costs—perhaps as much as 25 percent. The question is whether the benefits of a fourth year of college training exceed the costs. Do “diminishing returns” set in so that the fourth year of instruction involves only modest extensions of the basic knowledge imparted earlier? The answer to this question no doubt varies between program, schools, and even students. Still, there is little scientific basis for the conventional opinion that four years is the optimal period of collegiate study.

A three-year program can simply be a condensed version of the current four-year program achieved in part through the elimination of vacation periods, particularly in the summer. Alternatively, the bachelor’s degree could be redefined by eliminating up to a year of the coursework currently required. One consequence of the move to the three-year degree in Europe is that a large portion of students now want to go on for two additional years and get a master’s degree—the old four year bachelor’s degree program has, in effect, become a five year bachelor’s/masters program. It is therefore not entirely clear that shortening the time to earn a bachelor’s degree will in fact lead to lower costs and higher education participation in terms of years.

If colleges serve largely to screen the more able and talented students from those who are less so, then the shortening of the time required to earn a degree would seem to make sense.  It may, for example, make a good deal of sense for those majoring in English or anthropology. If, however, the fourth year of study confers valuable post-graduate vocational skills, as in, say, most forms of engineering or in accounting, then it makes less sense. At the minimum, research needs to be done on the costs and benefits of three-year degrees, and more experimentation with shorter degree programs is probably in order.

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