Getting Through College in Only 3 Years? Find Out More!

By Lauren Joffe for The Real College Guide

Heads up, traditionalists! A radical new idea promotes kissing the four-year academic program buh-bye and saying hello to a three-year system.

As accustomed as we are to its infrastructure, it would take some serious shaking up to rattle the U.S. education system. Yet Robert Zemsky, chairman of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education, is advocating for major changes on university campuses — most notably a three-year college program.

graduation day

Zemsky argues that given today’s economic, political and technological climate, it’s time for Americans to minimize cost, unnecessary resources and wasted time repeating coursework. His proposed plan would cause a drastic uplifting of the current system, impacting high schools as well. But it is Zemsky’s hope that reform ultimately would spawn a more streamlined institution. While the government might not be ready to back such lofty plans, the real question is: Are you?

How will students benefit from such reform?

According to Professor Zemsky, shifting to a more sequenced, regimented three-year program will save students time and money — cutting tuition costs by a whopping 25 percent. This is less moolah out of your pocket, not to mention additional interest that builds up as you work to pay off hefty loans. At the very foundation, students would pay for 90 credits over the typical 120.

In a contemporary society where minimizing time and financial expenditures ranks high on to-do lists, it seems almost given that a new system should be put into place. Right? Not necessarily.

For one, the program basically assumes all undergrads will go on for a post-grad or masters degree. “If you want college to help vocationally, you have to go beyond the undergrad,” says Zemsky. Under the new system, college would be a breeding ground whereby students learn the basics of a particular trade. It is then in graduate school that learning would become truly vocational.

So how would high schools be affected by this change?

High school seniors are infamously plagued by “senioritis” and finding ways to sidestep mundane assignments. Zemsky proposes doing away with wasteful course schedules during senior year and instead modeling it after the current freshman year of college. He suggests pre-college seniors take some of the basic humanities and sciences normally taken by college freshmen.

Zemsky tells us in a phone interview, “High schools would need to make assessments at a ninth-grade level as to whether a student is making progress to be ‘college-ready.’ Remediation would take place at this time rather than at the first year of college. The 10th and 11th grade levels would look the same, and the 12th grade would become equivalent to the first year of college. There would be an alignment so that senior year of high school sets students up for freshman year of college.”

What is the downside of a three-year college program?

Some students feel it’s unreasonable to be expected to choose a major and commit at age 18. And indeed, the pressure is really on if the typical college career were condensed. “I don’t know what I plan on majoring in,” says UPenn freshman Brett Levine. “In a three-year program, undecided people have less time to explore new subject areas.

“Even with people who know what they want to study, a three-year program would surely be more demanding if requirements for majors or graduate schools admissions stay the same. A lot of pre-meds and engineering students have difficulty satisfying graduation requirements as is. For undecided students like myself, the variety of course options is incredible. It allows me to explore new subject areas unavailable in high school.”

Says Zemsky: “Students are given endless choices, but it’s expensive. It confuses lots of people, and it takes longer to graduate because they get lost. Redesign the curriculum so it is not a smorgasbord of options.” Say goodbye to elective courses too, because in this system, there’s no room for classes that do not directly relate to your plan of study.

How would such lofty goals be implemented?

Zemsky doesn’t kid himself into thinking this would be a minor undertaking: “To really kick off reform, it would take an invitation from the president. I can’t imagine this happening without presidential leadership.” And, yes, he’s referring to the president of the United States.

In a recent Newsweek article, Zemsky argues his position by stating, “Everything around us — technology, medicine, politics — has changed … and [higher education] will too have to rethink what we are about.”

Still, Levine questions the practicality of Zemsky’s proposal. “A three-year program would essentially make college an even more stressful period. It would probably restrict options for traveling abroad, which many students value. It has many potential benefits for some students. People who know they want to major in economics, political science, Spanish or other relatively less intense majors may only need three years. However, others need four to prepare for graduate school or their desired career.”

And furthermore, Levine adds, “Socially, it obviously restricts the amount of time commonly dubbed ‘the best years of your life.’”

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