Reform higher education with three-year degrees


Amid a global pandemic, colleges nationwide have indefinitely shifted classes online. With students no longer using campus facilities and resources, they have created petitions and filed class-action lawsuits calling for tuition reduction and reimbursement. This discontent arises against the backdrop of a turbulent economy, historically high tuition costs and record levels of student loan debt.
Now is the time to take definitive action on higher education reform to best position our next generation of students. But the current mainstream reform proposals — like free college and debt cancellation — engender uncompromising, hyperpartisan reactions, which inevitably lead to inaction. If we truly want to improve our higher education system, we must pursue a bipartisan approach that reduces tuition costs and student loan debt, expands college opportunities for high school students, and requires no increase in taxes.
Currently, there is only one proposal that adequately fulfills these goals: Degree-in-Three reform. It calls for transitioning the college system away from the traditional four-year degree model to three-year degrees. Tuition would be reduced by 25 percent, students would have fewer loans and interest to pay back, more could afford college degrees, and they could seek employment and start earning salaries a year earlier.
According to Paul Weinstein, director of graduate programs at Johns Hopkins University, colleges could eliminate a year by shifting to a trimester system, adding a winter term, removing redundant class requirements, focusing on early declarations of majors, offering crossover master’s classes for students pursuing graduate degrees, and accepting more A.P. credit equivalents.
One criticism of Degree-in-Three reform is that reducing the length of a college career could potentially compromise the quality of education. But many universities — more than 30, according to Weinstein — already offer three-year degree programs. In addition, most colleges now allow students to substitute internship experience for classroom credit, and some even allow internships to fulfill a full semester’s worth of credit. So colleges could eliminate a year by creating formal summer internship programs-for-credit that buttress classroom instruction.

With colleges already recognizing the interchangeable nature of classroom instruction and internship experience, students earning employment opportunities and gaining real-world experience earlier could hardly be viewed as compromising their education and development. And with incoming freshmen now facing uncertain economic futures, maximizing work experience through internships could best prepare them for, and significantly improve their competitiveness in, future job markets.
Underscoring its bipartisan political appeal, Degree-in-Three reform wouldn’t require a single dollar of additional taxes, and would deliver wide-ranging economic benefits. With lower tuition costs, less student loan debt and an additional year of salary, the improved financial posture of college graduates would enable greater economic investment on their part — the purchase of cars and homes. Entering the workforce one year earlier, college graduates would also bolster our Social Security system through additional payroll taxes.
Further, by allowing students to graduate in three years, colleges could open up more seats in their incoming classes, which would mean more opportunities for high school students to attend competitive colleges and pursue their desired career paths. By doing so, colleges would be able to offset any potential profit losses from the transition to three-year degrees.
Degree-in-Three reform presents a bipartisan solution to a divisive national issue. Republicans have long proposed reducing the government’s role in administering loans in favor of private-sector lending, while Democrats have advanced free college and debt cancellation. Given these opposing approaches, bipartisan action would seem highly unlikely.
But Degree-in-Three reform caters to both parties’ interests, while still preserving the opportunity for each party to tout its preferred solutions to the problems it sees with the college system. With a three-year degree model, college tuition and loan debt would decrease, and more students would be able to attend college, making Democrats happy. And those benefits would accrue without raising taxes, and reduce government’s role in administering student loans, which would please Republicans.
In the meantime, Degree-in-Three reform would have already cut tuition costs by 25 percent, reduced student loan debt and delivered wide-ranging macro-economic benefits.

Oliver Roberts, who lives in Massapequa, is a second-year student at Harvard Law School. Comments about this column? Oroberts@jd21.law.harvard.edu.