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Pop Quiz: Bachelor’s Degree Makeover?

I wrote a few weeks ago about the costs and benefits of core courses as part of a college education.  I argued that core courses provide skills allowing for self-regulation and other necessary skills, and the (two) commenters for the most part agreed.  However, commenter kagehi noted:

We try to well round them, not to mention fix their misconceptions, during the first two years they are there, just so they come out the other end, hopefully, actually comprehending the subject they went in for, never mind anything else.

I then was perusing the Chronicle and came across an opinion piece by Jeffrey Selingo on how the current formulation of a college degree needs to be scrapped and a new paradigm established.  Selingo sees the value in the standard liberal arts backbone, but the bachelor’s degree needs to be redone.  His reasoning is somewhat similar to kagehi except Selingo thinks one year is enough.

What’s desperately needed is a bachelor’s-degree makeover, one that isolates the liberal-arts education everyone needs in a fast-changing global economy and is flexible enough to accommodate the demand for skills training throughout one’s life.

Selingo’s fix:

[…]the bachelor’s degree should be split into two parts: a one-year program focused on a general education, followed by separate programs of varying lengths, depending on the particular needs of an academic field. So after that first year, the credential for a computer-science major might take three years, but history or English majors might take just one.

(The devaluation of humanities packed in there could easily be subject to a whole bunch of posts…)

Selingo states we need to be more flexible in terms of granting degrees for our students.  I like the premise of the flexible program, especially as so many students don’t follow and complete a typical four year degree for a whole host of reasons.  I don’t like the idea of separating the “liberal arts” in a quick year from more extensive “career training” for one to however many years.  This again assumes that the core classes are not as important to student development as the career courses, and that the principles learned in those courses are not applicable in more specific career training.

The underlying assumption that the four year degree is no longer of value because it no longer matches needs is problematic, but it does highlight the issues facing many young people – an education in high school that’s no longer sufficient to get a good, long-term job of any kind because of the expectation of a college degree for most careers.  College isn’t cheap, so most students reasonably want to finish as quickly as possible.

There’s also this idea that the degree programs offered aren’t the product of careful thought and analysis of student needs.  Most students, as Selingo himself notes, are often less than prepared when they start their college program, so how exactly is one year of general education going to be enough to get them ready for advanced classes in a career field?  Once students have a general education appropriate to college students, they still will need to take courses in specific programs building on the foundational skills learned in that education, and the expectations of employers isn’t going to be dropping any time soon. Most programs also provide the context any person would need to not only enter a career related to their interests, but to know what other options are open to them, as well as the primary skill set required for a set of related careers.

The underlying assumptions of what a college degree entails should be examined carefully, especially in the current age of high college costs and the expectation of a college degree for employment.  A well-rounded person with more advanced skills in a specific area is the intended product of the “traditional” bachelor’s programs, but maybe that’s no longer appropriate.

Here’s my question to you: what should a bachelor’s degree entail?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET)


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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.

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