Courses like “Decoding Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Sex and Cinema in the 20th Century,” “Wizards and Vampires in Film, TV & Literature,” “Tattoos in American Popular Culture,” and “The Fame Monster: The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga” have been popping up for years in course catalogs nationwide. Is this really a college education? Could we stop squandering taxpayers’ money, students’ money, and students’ precious time?
The college scramble for survival during the pandemic has been palpable, but so far, no school has done the obvious: Streamline the degree, cut all the fluff, reduce their delivery costs, and thereby lower substantially the tuition bill and the opportunity costs for a college diploma.
Virtually every school demands a minimum of 120 semester credit hours (essentially, 40 or more college classes) for a bachelor’s degree. Assuming a normal schedule of five courses per semester, that comes to four years of seat time. But the disadvantages of holding students captive for so long far outweigh the advantages. No human being should ever stop learning, but it doesn’t have to be in an expansive, expensive collegiate program.
The time has come for a 90 credit hour baccalaureate degree.
The typical baccalaureate degree package contains roughly 30–40 credit hours of “general education,” often called “distribution requirements.” The very name “distribution requirements” reveals the flawed thinking that a cafeteria line of choices will produce a graduate ready for the challenges of career and citizenship. In reality, this smorgasbord is bad for students, especially first-generation college students, who may be less prepared to make prudent choices. And if that chaos is not bad enough, it is compounded with a bolus of “free electives,” with further opportunity to waste time and scarce funding. Only then comes the major or preprofessional program.
Thus, the typical structure is a financial disaster, as institutions serve up a plethora of under-enrolled niche classes (see above) instead of an efficient core of courses. If the pandemic sparks a long overdue curricular reform, it will, paradoxically, have given us a collateral benefit along with the suffering.
In under 30 hours, a student could have a class in expository writing, college mathematics, a laboratory science course, an introduction to economics, a foundational course on American history and government, a literature survey, and three semesters of a foreign language—achieving an intermediate fluency. That amounts at most to one year in college, in terms of credit hours. It still leaves room for a robust, 40 credit hour major, and even space for a minor. For certain pre-professional degrees, like nursing or engineering, if there is to be an additional year, it should carry with it a special certification or possibly a master’s degree.
The question that I now pose has thus far been heretical in the American academy: Why does the standard bachelor’s degree have to take 120 or more semester hours, typically stretching for four years or more? Why hasn’t a baccalaureate degree based on 90 credit hours yet emerged?
Some of the inertia may be the work of the non-governmental agencies empowered by Congress to determine whether a school is worthy of receiving federal student financial aid. Several of these accrediting agencies demand a 120 credit hour minimum, though, curiously, there is no federal statute on which they base this quite onerous requirement. A change in their procedures is long overdue.
There is a strong precedent for the success of a three-year undergraduate degree. It is typical throughout Europe. There are, of course, differences between the European model and ours, given the very uneven world of American secondary school education. But by instituting a solid core curriculum, students can develop the collegiate skills they need, and students who received a lower-quality high school education can catch up to their peers. They will be ready to make an informed choice of a major or preprofessional program, and they will have the prerequisites for success in it.
Such curricular reform could be a good deal for all, especially the students, who obviously benefit from a faster and less expensive pathway to graduation that is at the same time more intellectually coherent. Colleges and universities could seriously trim budgets by prioritizing essential courses and programs and eliminating the rest. Academic departments could finally end “turf wars” over distribution requirements that they use to attract enrollment. And employers would be satisfied knowing that college graduates have received a rigorous and thoughtfully structured education.
The pandemic has made one thing clear: Higher education’s comfortable status quo is coming to a crashing end. The money simply won’t be there. Colleges and universities can no longer maintain their smug indifference to public accountability. They must now deliver a high-quality education at a lower price.
Our prosperity and flourishing depend on it. For too long, we have uncritically accepted the oddities of our higher education system as unexceptionable. Now we must consider commonsense solutions, and the advantage of a college degree that is so much less expensive to deliver and so much less costly in time and money to students should be self-evident.