Opinion: Beyond the 4-year degree

By Jeffrey J. Selingo, Los Angeles Times
April 18th, 2016

new degree

Maybe it’s time to reconsider the one-size-fits-all degree model

The assumption that a college education should take four years is baked into American culture. Colleges in the colonial days were founded on the premise of a four-year degree, a concept imported from Europe. Harvard University experimented with a three-year degree when it was founded in 1636, but the test was short-lived, and the four-year degree has been the standard ever since. We expect students to enter college at 18 and leave when they turn 22, and we worry about those who take a more circuitous route to graduation.

But we need to reconsider that long-established, one-size-fits all model. For many students, attending college for four consecutive years is no longer the right path. The dynamic economy requires more flexibility, especially in fields outside the traditional liberal arts.

Take data science. In the last five years, there has been a sevenfold increase in demand for data scientists, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads. But in the same time span, the requirements for the job have changed, requiring greater training in data visualization and less familiarity with deep quantitative reasoning. In this and other areas, the relevant skills are evolving so rapidly that no traditional undergraduate curriculum can keep up.

Instead of maintaining the four-year norm, we should reimagine a college education as a platform for lifelong learning, one that would provide students with multiple opportunities to develop soft skills as well as critical technical skills — not just between the ages of 18 and 22 but whenever necessary.

Next page: How Stanford University’s model might work

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