Degree in Three — don’t fall for it

Shhh. Don’t let my university administrators know about this post. It’s secret.

The University of Minnesota Morris has a new scheme for recruiting called Degree In Three. It’s promoting the idea that you can graduate in 3 years, rather than four. It’s all empty PR.

They aren’t lying. It’s true. It’s possible to complete your bachelor’s degree in three years at UMM.

What they’re not saying is that this is not a new program, students have always been able to do this. UMM allows considerable flexibility — there’s never been any kind of fixed year by year requirements where there is a necessary fourth year component to the degree. I was advising students 20 years ago about ways to finish an accelerated program. It just required either coming in with a buttload of college credits (entirely possible, Minnesota has Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) where advanced high school students could get college credits), or you could just take overloads every semester. It wasn’t fun or easy, but it was doable. I usually tried to dissuade students from going that route, but now it’s an advertising gimmick.

Where I object is that nothing has changed. We certainly haven’t reduced graduation requirements. You still have to complete 120 credits; you can do that by taking 20 credits every semester for three years, or, as they suggest, 16 credits every semester + 8 credits of summer courses every year. So, basically, our Degree in Three program is about telling students to work harder faster.

One obstacle to this plan is that we don’t have the staffing to provide every course every semester, so students will have to plot a very specific path through the available courses to complete all the requirements. For instance, we don’t offer ecology in the spring here, because normally it’s so cold and snowy as to preclude any fieldwork — if you thought you’d just take it in spring of your third year, nuh-uh, you’re going to have to take it in a fourth year anyway. It also limits flexibility. Your schedule is so tight that if you fail to get in to a necessary course one year, the cascade of failed prerequisites may screw all of your plans. No, we’re not hiring additional faculty to cope with this problem.

A course overload is serious business. I’ve often had to advise students who sign up for too many courses at once, confident that they could handle it, and then they get sick one week or a relative dies and kaboom, suddenly, no they can’t handle it. I try to recommend that my students take only two lab courses at once, because they’re already a big time-suck, but I’ve had some students try to take three…they just disappear for a semester. It’s a miserable amount of work. Our students are ambitious over-achievers, so they’ll try and some will succeed, but I’m not here to crack whips.

The whole program is antithetical to the liberal arts experience. Students are supposed to have the opportunity to explore the world of ideas, taking classes in a specific degree-granting program, but also being able (even required and expected) to take a variety of courses outside that program. Oh, you’re trying to get a degree in biochemistry, but you’ve discovered that you love poetry and literature? So sorry, you don’t have time to take those courses before we trundle you out the door at an accelerated pace.

I get a fair number of prospective students coming to visit me (maybe not so many after you leak this to the administration) and I know I’m going to meet parents and students in a hurry who will ask me about this program. I will tell them that sure, I can advise them on how to speed-run through college, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The four year plan is much more comfortable and will allow you to enjoy college and develop a breadth of interests. I also know that some of those ambitious students will be back in my office in their second year panicking because they failed an o-chem exam and now think that revising their graduation plan will cost them that $20,000 that they imagined “saving” thanks to the Degree in Three plan.

I repeat, there’s nothing dishonest about the Degree in Three plan. It’s just nothing new, costs the university absolutely nothing, and is just about telling the students they can graduate faster if they work much harder. It’s not a great selling point, if you ask me.

They didn’t ask me, of course. I’ve been at faculty meetings where we irrelevant faculty make these same points, but hey, the advertising campaign is in the works.


  1. Jazzlet says

    My mum died while I was in second year at university, I failed the year. Luckily for me I’m old and live in the UK, thanks to Tim Brighouse at Oxford Council’s Education Department the whole repeat year was paid for by them, including the grant for living expenses, books etc. Something that big can really screw you up in ways you simply can’t predict.

  2. devnll says

    The whole program is antithetical to the liberal arts experience. Students are supposed to have the opportunity to explore the world of ideas, taking classes in a specific degree-granting program, but also being able (even required and expected) to take a variety of courses outside that program.

    I’m a huge supporter of the idea of a broad liberal arts education, and I’ve argued with people about it for years… but I’ve finally had to shut up about it. A student at a university where I was working was complaining to me about being forced to take gen ed credits during his engineering degree. I argued their value, but he stopped me cold when he told me how much it was costing him to take those credits, and how much interest he was going to pay on that loan. It’s one thing for me to tell him that he should work a little longer for his degree to make the world a better place; it’s another for me to tell him that he needs to go into massive debt to do it.

    Of course, if we properly funded public education, instead of treating it like a for-profit business, that might defuse the argument a bit.

  3. Hemidactylus says

    Someone I know quite well took a bit longer than 4 years to complete their undergrad. They started part-time in community college after a gap of three years post high school working construction, then transferred and did part-time a bit longer at university then embarked upon a weed-rager double major. Of course they are not working for two decades in either field. This person knew a graduate student that definitely wasn’t them who took quite a long time to complete their masters. I think fires get lit under asses when that happens. Why be in a hurry? Enjoy most of your 20s slacking! 3 years? Screw that treadmill nonsense.

  4. Akira MacKenzie says

    Whoops! Typo! That was actually meant to be a response to 2.

    I have not now, or have I ever, bought my own college degree… even though my general level of stupidity would indicate otherwise.

  5. Hemidactylus says

    Akira MacKenzie @7
    I knew you were replying to me. No shame in taking your time with school. I did.

  6. Dennis K says

    @5 Hemidactylus — Spent two years at a community college exploring career options. Thought I found one, transferred to the university — realized nope, that ain’t it, switched majors — rinse and repeat for two more years — met a girl, got academically suspended for prioritizing said girl over grades — oops, back to the community college, with the girl — courted her for another year while taking fun liberal arts courses at the CC and raising my GPA — returned to university, got serious, graduated with a BS in physics (lost the girl, which turned out to be fortuitous). Eight long, wonderful years I wouldn’t trade for anything. Of course that was back in the dinosaur days, when costs were manageable with sweaty summer jobs and winter work-study.

  7. garysturgess says

    I had a recent immigrant from the US as a course coordinator when I was Uni in Australia; I don’t recall exactly what course it was that he ran, but I do recall him mentioning the Liberal Arts degree and I also recall thinking (then and since) that it sounded like a great idea.

    However devnll@4 is right – we’re fortunate enough to have deferred (and a lot cheaper, but it should be free!) tertiary education expenses in Australia, but the idea of having to pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars extra is enough to sour me on the whole idea.

  8. Hemidactylus says

    Dennis K @9
    My high school GPA was crap. Something happened to me early in high school where I got really sick, was hospitalized, and had serious cognitive impacts (TL/DR) which pretty much threw me off course. Maybe a virus or other microbe. Hit me hard twice. Marched through my body as a migrating numbness, aphasia (word salad I was aware of), and horrific puking. Was never diagnosed. Was exposed to north Georgia river water and scratched by a cat. Who knows.

    The time off after high school working with my dad may have been helpful recovery, though one construction site which was general contracted by what my dad thought was a mob outfit was kinda traumatic. Think new hotel construction in wintertime Connecticut. Very toxic situation run by thugs.

    When I started going back to school I slowly got my shit together. My later longterm GF Mary Jane helped me focus. But when I had to become a responsible adult I had to break up with her. Sad. She was super cool and maybe helped overcome whatever afflicted me in high school by burning new pathways through the crap I was left with.

  9. Hemidactylus says

    My foggy memory could have included a tick. Early 80s so fog of time complicates the retrospective etiology. Really don’t like those memories.

    But there are so many other reasons kids don’t go to college immediately or finish in record time…or finish. I consider my situation actually privileged compared to others. My parents kept interest in me despite my fuck ups. They weren’t wealthy. But they managed. My mom’s health care helped.

  10. chrislawson says

    In Oz/UK/NZ, 3 year is the norm for a bachelors…but honours requires a 4th year.

    Our education systems have been degraded by the same MBA-fallacy leadership as the US, albeit not as badly, and our students also face delayed graduation because of lack of teaching staff to run all core subjects every semester. Meanwhile the VCs give themselves huge salary increases year on year, expand their departments and enrol more students while contracting resources for teaching and research, and seek out wildly inappropriate industry or political affiliations to bring in more money…that of course gets funnelled back into their empire-building and never to the academic staff or students.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    Jazzlet @ 1
    My dad got cancer when I started on the University and died a year later. It messed me up so badly it took me a decade before I could focus on anything properly.
    Fortunately our system (Sweden) has free University education, so I did not get bankrupted .

  12. Rich Woods says

    @Hemidactylus #11:

    Was exposed to north Georgia river water and scratched by a cat.

    Did you develop superpowers?

  13. Larry says

    Back in the dark ages, when I was in school, I spent a year at JuCo before transferring to a 4-year university to earn my BSEE. Even having transferred that year of credits, it still took me 3 full years and an extra quarter to complete all the requirements and that was even with groaning through a number of quarters carrying 20-25 units. I don’t believe that it is possible for most people to complete a technical degree in 3 years while not burning one’s self out and being able to enjoy the college experience beyond the classroom.

  14. Paul K says

    I graduated from UMM in 1984. I took summer classes for two of my years there, and always tried to take the maximum number of credits allowed. But I also took a year off. I ended up with nearly six years of credits after completing 4-2/3 years of registered classes. Then, because I was extremely curious, had no plan for life after college, and had already paid for my housing, I stayed for a final trimester of auditing classes I was interested in with professors I liked. (One class was ‘The Literature of Creation: Origin Stories From Ancient Cultures’ [or something like that]. I was already a very devout atheist, so, unlike some in the class, I had no trouble looking at the Bible as just one other ‘myth’.)

    But devnll @ 4 brings up such a vital point. I went to college mostly in the early Reagan years, when the US went through a fairly severe recession, and public funding for the U of M went down. In one year, tuition went up, if I recall correctly, 45%. But college was still cheap enough for me to keep exploring in a very liberal arts way without thinking too much about the debt I was accruing. I had no help from my parents, and had not been a dependent of theirs since I’d been 16. I worked 50 hours per week at three different jobs for two of my years (I cannot even fathom now how I did that). But I sure didn’t need to choose my major based on my future loan repayment. I ended up with a BA in English, after all!

    My son is nearly finished with his degree in electrical engineering. Unlike me, he’s known just what he wanted to do from a very young age. He’s smart enough that he’s gotten an almost free ride with various scholarships. Even if he hadn’t, he’s known since he started college that he would be making more in his first year as an engineer than the best years of his parents working lives, even with their incomes combined (we worked with children; it had other rewards). So, we all three feel very fortunate to at least not have that concern on our plate. If he had wanted to go into music, say, or art, or any number of other things, these past several years would have been very different. He probably would not have gone to college at all.

  15. brightmoon says

    NYC CUNY was free except for a small fee for city residents when I started . My oldest got loans and since he was an an older student and I was too broke at the time because of an injury, He’s got a lot of student loan debt. And speaking of overwork . He decided in his 3rd year to get a chemistry BS on top of his biology BS . He ended up with 25 credits for two semesters of mostly upper level chemistry courses . He did it and kept his grades up. I don’t know how 🤷🏾‍♀️. Even his one of his biology teachers used to bring him cups of tea because she was so concerned about him. Of course, I’m hella proud of him . He’s in Sigma Xi when he remembers to pay his dues.

  16. Silentbob says

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a City University of New York.

    I’m just saying if you’d thought about it for like two seconds you could have said University of the City of New York and avoided 90% of the English speaking world falling about in hilarity.

    Just a suggestion.


  17. StevoR says

    @ ^ Silentbob : Could be worse – could be the (apocryphal?) oroginal acronnymn chosen by puritanical anti-sex Christianist conservative Mary Whitehouse for her organisation..

  18. StevoR says

    Perhaps predictably can’t fnd on youtube as hoped but starts off Campaign to Clean Up National .. that device we use to watch things on.. (Hmm..might need to phrase elliptically here..) – Gendered slur reference unfortuantely.

    Appologies if too inappropriate PZ.

  19. Silentbob says

    I mean it could be worse.

    As far as I know Americans don’t force any students to say they study at the big Centrally Organized College Kansas.

  20. jacksprocket says

    chrislawson @ 13: when did UK degrees start taking 4 for honours? Back in my day (1970s) it was 3 for honours, I got a 2.1 which is about equivalent to a Nobel prize now. And that included a (limited) range of “liberal” subjects- I studies French and still can’t speak it (much less listen to it) and business studies (and I’m still the world’s worst businessman). My daughter did her degree 15 years ago in 3.

Leave a Reply