The case for three-year bachelor degrees

Students and taxpayers could benefit from a fork in the road

Photo by vancouverfilmschool on Flickr

University presidents, student federations and faculty associations rarely agree about much.

But they joined forces last week to bash an Ontario government proposal for three-year bachelor degrees.

The opponents argue that graduates of three-year programs won’t develop the critical thinking and research skills that those with four-year degrees have mastered. That seems obvious.

They also argue that the government is motivated by financial savings. That’s probably true. It costs provincial taxpayers $8,500 per student per year. Ontario’s deficit is forcing the government to rein in costs.

But the argument that students don’t want three-year degrees is insulting to their intelligence.

Max Blouw, president of Wilfrid Laurier University told The Waterloo Record that only 17 per cent of students at his school choose three-year degrees. That, he says, is students “voting with their feet.”

Others have cited a survey by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario that shows that 64 per cent of 850 students surveyed see four-year degrees as “having the most value.” Well, duh.

But would students feel the same way about three-year degrees if they were available at every school? Would students feel the same way about three-year degrees if they allowed them to better prepare for the job market while spending the same amount of (or less) time and money? What if three-year degrees meant more access to master’s programs for the academically inclined?

Most Ontario universities have quietly gotten rid of three-year degrees. The eight that kept them do little to promote them. If you’re a president of a university who faces a perpetual funding crisis, you’d rather bring in $80,000 per student recruited than the $60,000 a three-year student brings in.

Blouw is correct that students are voting with their feet. After four-year degrees that seem like the only option in high school, many graduate, struggle to find work and then enroll in college programs.

That’s because most new jobs—the good ones anyway—demand a combination of what universities teach (critical thinking, research, writing) and industry-specific skills that colleges specialize in.

The way things are set up now, graduates find that they often need both to succeed. The problem is that they don’t discover that fact until after four or five years of collecting debt at university.

It’s true that three-year degrees, even if accelerated, would likely never be academically equivalent to four years. But three-year degrees would offer students a much-needed fork in the road.

Those who are thriving in academia after three years could go on to traditional two-year master’s programs. This group would have plenty of time to cement their critical thinking and research skills.

Those who aren’t so in love with academia by year three could move on to applied programs like college post-grads, apprenticeships or applied master’s degrees with better chances at jobs.

There may be big financial benefits to such a fork in the road. If more students moved to a college after year three, more would be working within four years of high school graduation. They would save a year of tuition and start paying their loans back—not to mention taxes—a year sooner.

There would be even bigger savings for taxpayers ($8,500+ per year) which could be used to pay down the deficit or to create spaces in master’s programs, where there isn’t enough room.

That, of course, would be a radical change.

But a 3+2 system is already in place in Europe, where it took years debate to settle on the system.

We would be wise to not dismiss the idea so quickly—even if some of our leaders already have.

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