Education Expert Touts a Three-Year Degree

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

Robert Zemsky

Q: If three-year degrees do catch on, something will have sparked colleges 'and universities' discussion about and support for the shift. What might be that spark?

A: I've been doing some writing since the book, and I played an imaginary game of "Could I make it happen, and if so, what would I do?" In the book I talk about the president getting all five governors together, but that's nonsense. They would never all come. Instead, let's pick four states: California, because its public higher education system is in dire shape; Ohio, because its governor and chancellor already think they need to change higher ed; Texas, because you have to pick either Florida or Texas because of the multidimensionality of their democracies...; and New York, because their state system is admirably comprehensive. Imagine now [that] the president invites the governors of these states, 16 educational leaders from these states, other academics who have spoken positively about three-year degrees, and the heads of the country's four accrediting bodies on a retreat to get this process started. You know, that's not necessarily a fantasy—that just might work!

Q: Will three-year degrees help the high numbers of students who start but ultimately drop out of college?

A: We have to get honest with ourselves about attainment. We don't have an access problem; we have an attainment problem. We make dropout rates at college worse because we pay large numbers of unprepared students to go to college. From their perspective, the smartest thing they can do is go to college. They have Pell grants, they have low-interest loans, and they have job prospects that are not promising without a college degree, so what do they have to lose? Lightning just might strike. But of course it doesn't, and many students start failing, get discouraged, and drop out.

Q: The book has been out for a few weeks now. Have you received any significant responses from parents or college students?

A: That's the strange thing about all of this. There are breaks between what people know-which is nothing-and how they act. Families know that college is too expensive, yet they still send their children to expensive schools. People are cautious to come out and support three-year degrees, but especially in response to this book, they are slowly starting to come around.

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