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The UnCollege Blog

Does College Have to Be Four Years?


I never thought it was a coincidence that the box has four walls and college has four years. What I have thought about often is why the college experience is condensed (or on the flip side, drawn out) into a four-year chunk of time. It seems like such an arbitrary number—why not hasten the pace and make college a two-year project? Or why not extend the experience into a six-year intensive endeavor that plants graduates firmly in the middle of young adulthood?

When you Google “why is college four years?” (as I have, numerous times), you’re met with a variety of articles ranging from whether a two-year community college or four-year traditional college is right for you, to the more interesting that state boldly: Completing a college degree in four years is a myth.

A report from Complete College America stated that a majority of college students in the United States don’t graduate in the four-year time lapse. Why? According to the report: “The reality is that our system of higher education costs too much, takes too long and graduates too few.”

This is echoed a 2013 story from TIME (showing that four-year college has been experiencing a dramatic extension in the past few years), in which a student explained he had to move slowly in the course load he took to avoid getting too deep into debt. Of course, the article also mentioned other delays, like students pursuing internships.

Basic math tells us that the longer you’re in the school, the more expensive it is. But it impossible to address the question of whether college should actually be four years without confronting the unsettling statistic from the Department of Education that fewer than 40% of students who enter college graduate within four years. Nationally, almost 60% of students graduate in six years—hovering eerily close to the six-year college plan I threw out, semi-sarcastically, at the start of this essay. 

It seems there’s a careful balance to strike here: Why spend extra time in college racking up debt? To counter this, why do we want students to rush through their educations so quickly they don’t have time to intellectually and creatively roam. 

Three-year college degrees are commonplace over in Europe, and rethinking the curriculum could include cutting back on elective courses, reducing core requirements (a.k.a. less GEs), and shifting the schedule to include shorter semesters, according to a CNN Opinion piece published in 2015.

Think that a four-year degree lessens America’s educational prowess? Well, Cambridge, Oxford, University of San Francisco, University of Akron, University of Cincinnati, University of North Carolina Greensboro, and Bates College—all of which offer three-year degree programs—disagree.

So, we know college doesn’t have to be four years. But the greater question remains: How can we make the most of those four years, or three years?

Colleges should be evolving and progressing along with students. A stagnant four-year program, full of mandatory requirements that garner student’s disinterest, isn’t cutting it anymore. In addition to shortening the college stretch, here’s how we can maximize time spent in the hallowed halls of higher education…whether it’s three years or four:

-Don’t penalize working students: A student shouldn’t have to sink further into debt because they’re trying to pay for college in the first place. Around the country, students are trying to work their jobs—which are paying them—around their educations, which they are paying for. With the technology that is now constantly at our fingertips, why can’t we utilize online courses mixed with in-person classes to let students work AND learn in a college atmosphere? 

-Halt the GEs: This one will help fill educational gaps starting in high school…students should enter college with their general education already successful handled. We shouldn’t spend two of the four years catching students up on “general” education—because that is what high school is supposed to be for.

-Bring work/internship into the fold: Internships shouldn’t slow a student down. Internships or work experience should also be a crucial part of higher education, not just a summer supplement to it. By encouraging students to gain experience outside the classroom, they: 1) Gain an understanding of whether their intended field is right for them prior to graduation, 2) Develop on-the-job skills related to this field that cannot necessarily be learned in a classroom, as well as more general traits such as professional behavior, and 3) Create part of their own education.

If students are adult enough to pay for their educations—or sign the loans for it—they should be trusted to create parts of their learning that are not mandated by the government or institution. In addition to saving money (getting credit for work or internship experience means less class credit needed), allowing students to have a hand in the creation of their own education means that they are intellectually and creatively engaged. And isn’t that what the “higher” part of “higher learning” is supposed to be about?

Of course, all of the aforementioned require shattering the learning box I originally mentioned. And if we don’t need the standardized four walls, who says we need the same old four years?