Education Expert Touts a Three-Year Degree

Robert Zemsky, chairman of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, talks about his new book.

Robert Zemsky

Robert Zemsky is a unique scholar—he belongs to the same cohort he has studied with a critical eye for more than 40 years. Zemsky is the founding director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Research on Higher Education and current chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education. In these and other professional roles, Zemsky has examined the fine balance between a college or university's mission to educate and its business-minded need to stay financially afloat. Part adviser, part watchdog, Zemsky counsels individual schools on how to improve but also opines on what's wrong with higher education and how to fix it. Here, in a recent discussion with U.S. News, Zemsky speaks about his new book, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education.


Q: How did your participation in the Spellings Commission influence the arguments laid out in Making Reform Work?

A: I was an eager member but a disappointed signer of the Spellings Commission report. Before starting the book, I said to myself, "Well, what did I learn that would make it better next time if we ever did something like the Spellings Commission again?" and the answers to that question became the book. I learned that you can't shout at higher education to change, you can't shame them into being better, you can't beat them up. Though you could financially starve them, that would just make them meaner. I did a lot of meandering in my own head about the most central problems and their possible solutions and decided that the big, potential agent of change is three-year degrees.

Q: What's so great about a three-year degree?

A: Right now, it takes students way too long to finish their coursework for what is supposed to be a four-year degree. We've created a curricular structure in college that's just nuts! It's been about 50 years since I graduated from college, which is a frightening thought, but we had a curricular structure then. You did A before you did B, and then you did C, but that just doesn't exist anymore. Creating a schedule at college today is like walking down the aisles of a supermarket-one of this, two of that, show up at the cash register and get your degree. People get lost with all that choice, and the main reason why people take so long to complete their requirements is because they didn't realize what courses they needed to take to stay on track until it was too late.

Q: So how does a three-year degree work?

A: Unlike the educational supermarket model we have now, much of the curricula required to receive a three-year degree would be fixed. As a student, you get to choose where you want to go and your general path or field, but once you make a decision, there is no wandering around. I also really want what is considered "gen-ed" to take place during the senior year of high school. When my colleagues tell me how preposterous this notion is and how much they believe in the importance of gen-ed, I kindly remind them that I find this funny because none of them actually teach it. Let high school instructors teach those courses to high school seniors, so we can get it out of the way before students embark on their three-year degree coursework.

Q: But what happens if a student changes his mind about his path? So many students come to college with undeclared majors.

A: If you change your mind halfway through, you would have to start again, but you also have to remember that the average time to complete college is 5½ years, so you wouldn't be losing any time against the old standard.

Q: Considering three-year degrees would cause a sharp decline in tuition for colleges and universities, how can you expect they would jump on board with your plan?

A: Colleges need to take a big gulp and just do this. Yes, on the front end, we're looking at 25 percent reductions, but colleges and universities are smart. They will realize that three-year degrees open up an already growing market for master's degrees. Making undergrad more efficient for students means potential growth for master's programs. It's that simple.