Higher Education Policy and Practice

A Modest Proposal for An Alternative to the Classic Four-Year Degree

Most bachelor’s degrees are typically structured around a strong liberal arts component with the remaining courses aimed at developing expertise in a major that may or may not be useful when a graduate enters the job market.  For instance, in a 124 hour degree program, nearly 50% of the credits are devoted to general education credits, which are heavily ladened with liberal arts courses.  Then the balance of the courses is allocated between a common core of credits for the major and specific credits.  A typical curriculum would look like the following:

  • General Education:             58 credits                    47%  of the total credits
  • Major Core:                          42 credits                    34%  of the total credits
  • Concentration:                     24 credits                    19%  of the total credits

Total Credits:                             124 credits

Since 2006, nearly 94% of college graduates entered the job market.  For these students, it may be reasonable to assume that their primary interest is how their college courses will prepare them for employment.  Under the traditional bachelor degree structure nearly two years of their tuition and course work is spent on courses that do not directly prepare them for employment.  Given that the average degree cost for 2009-10 was $109,172 (College Board) with a net tuition charge after financial aid of $63,172, those two years would cost the average graduate paying the posted price $51,310 – or $29,994 for those paying the net tuition charge.  Of course, the real cost depends on where a student enrolls.  The range in costs for a four-year degree can run from a posted $224,000 tuition bill at the most expensive private college to $39,000 at a commuter college.

While net tuition seems to be modest, not every student receives the average net tuition benefit and the balance after net tuition is often paid either from a family’s discretionary income or by taking loans.  Since discretionary income has not kept pace with the rise in tuition rates over the last decade, students have had to take on ever larger amounts of debt to finance their degree.  In addition, the salary for their first jobs has to carry the burden for courses that did not directly improve their skills for employment.

Even elite liberal arts colleges are beginning to question their business model of high tuition coupled to traditional four-year degree programs.  Smith College has recently published a discussion paper titled Future Initiatives.  This paper discusses the concerns that they have about the viability of their business model, in particular, the effect of high tuition rates on access, the use of a four-year instructional model based mainly upon classroom instruction, and whether the student market will continue to support this model.

Many parents, students, and government agencies have already come to the conclusion that the traditional four-year liberal arts model is too expensive.  They are asking how colleges can reduce the cost of a degree that also produces the skills for a career that produces sufficient income to repay their loans.  If we focus solely on those students who seek a degree so that they can immediately go to work, the financial problem is how a student can purchase a degree that imposes the smallest debt load and debt service on future income.  This question is particularly acute for first generation students who often attend college on a shoe string.

Moreover, in the US we are trying to funnel about 60% of high school graduates through this delivery system.  A significant portion of them are underprepared and require remedial education to grasp basic college level course-work, and still a large number never complete their degree programs.  Demographic analysis tells us that in the future even more students will enter college underprepared for its rigors.  The liberal arts core is and will remain beyond the grasp of large numbers of these potential college students.  They have the innate intelligence to enter a highly skilled workforce, but do not have the essential preparation to succeed in a college program with a strong liberal arts core.

Concern about the structure of the curriculum – whether it should be directed toward specific technical skills or continue the existing liberal arts model of general study – is being widely debated in higher education, the government, employers, and among parents and students.  One example of this debate is a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Which Core Matters More?” (September 30, 2011).   This article indicates that many schools are carefully looking at the problem of what students should know and be able to do when they graduate.  There is a growing consensus that higher education should not be solely within the confines of a liberal arts curriculum, but new models should be considered that allow students to focus on skills needed to be proficient in their chosen field of work.  Another Chronicle article from October 7th asks the question what would happen “…if colleges lose their monopoly on credentials?”  This question becomes relevant as employers try to determine if it makes sense to pay high salaries or for government to allocate huge tuition subsidies for poorly prepared graduates.  The question is also relevant for students who are sinking large sums of money that burdens them with debt in excess of $75,000 that require first time salaries in excess of $50,000 to cover debt, taxes, and basic living expenses.

Questions about cost and skill proficiency are not trivial because they involve the very foundation of what a college degree is supposed to certify.  Is a college degree a valid certification of a skilled and capable graduate with well-honed problem solving skills or simply a piece of paper that is a ticket to be punched on the way to a high-paying job?

There are alternative models for degrees, however, that produce technically skilled graduates within a shorter time period, reduce the total cost of earning a degree and the total debt graduates must repay.  These degrees currently exist outside the US and have been shaped by the Bologna Agreement on higher education that guides Europe and many countries, such as Mexico, Canada and in the Commonwealth of the UK.

An Alternative Model

The alternative to the traditional bachelor’s degree program is a three-year technical program, which rigorously focuses on technical and problem solving skills that prepares a student for a particular type of employment. The curriculum would be designed to respond to employers’ need that they want graduates with these skills: be able to write coherently and concisely, perform basic mathematics and technical skills required for a position, and competently solve problems common to the field by specifying the problem, selecting an optimal solution, developing a well-conceived plan of operation, and setting-out a plan to report on performance outcomes.


  • The model must be designed around the skills required for a specific career
  • Performance must be assessed in terms of performance objectives
  • Faculty must have experience in the field rather than pure academic experience
  • Curriculum should include a mix of courses, simulations, and internships
  • Support services should include internship and student performance coordinators and counselors
  • Program courses should be designed around intensive work on developing technical skills that fit the requirements of a particular career set
  • There would be a capstone course which involves an intensive problem-solving simulation
  • English courses should focus on writing skills based on the requirements of a particular career set
  • Math courses should focus on developing strong math skills based on the requirements of a particular career set (If the career set depends on strong arithmetic and basic algebra skills that would be the focus of the math courses. If the career set does not employ advanced math such as calculus; these skills would not be included in the math courses)
  • Program should be completed with the equivalent of thirty courses or ninety credits of courses that could be completed upon an accelerated schedule
  • The program will accept transfer credits and work experience subject to these credits meeting specific course skill objectives of the program
  • Businesses and nonprofit organizations will sign-off on accepting students for employment who have completed the program
  • Financing of the model will be a combination of direct costs, direct support costs, subsidy by third parties (no traditional financial aid), and a limited assignment of institutional costs (general administration, registration, etc)
  • Assessment will be continuous at the level of student skills, program objectives, and post graduation (the latter would inform the program of the strengths, weaknesses, and changes in skill requirements)


Because this program does not fit traditional associate or bachelor degree models, the program would have to be accepted by state licensure authorities, regional accreditation commissions and the US Department of Education so that students could receive Title IV financial aid.  In addition, employers would need to accept that the alternative produces graduates that have appropriate skills.  Furthermore, the faculty should not force the program into a standard bachelor’s degree model.

Curriculum General Model

  • Program would be designed to develop skills for work that requires rigorous understanding of specific technical and problem solving skills
  • Goal: Provide a three year program of career skills development
  • Total Credits: 87 credits
  • Total Courses: approximately 29 courses depending upon the number of credit hours assigned to specific classes
  • Public and Group Facilitation classes would be designed as simulations focused on specific problems
  • Career Specific Technical Skills; classes would be designed to develop rigorous use and understanding of technical skills and to develop problem solving skills for the field
  • General Required Courses could focus on subjects that are important to understanding and living in a complex political and economic system
  • Course Methodological Options:
    • Skill understanding, training, and practice of skills to proficiency
    • Simulations to develop and hone skills
    • Simulations to test problem solving skills for the field (major) selected by the student
  • Curriculum Structure
    • Writing Skills: total 9 credits
    • Math Skills: total 9 credits
    • Computer Skills: total 9 credits
    • Public and Group Facilitation (simulations): total 9 credits
    • Career Specific Technical Skills: total 42 credits
    • General Required Courses: total 9 credits

Michael Townsley, PhD

Senior Consultant, Stevens Strategy

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