Chair Shapira, chancellor, governors, faculty liaison, presidents, and guests,
My name is Ken Mash, and I am the president of APSCUF, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.
I wish to talk to you today about the notion of three-year bachelor’s degree programs and why an overwhelming number of faculty (not just the faculty at the System universities) have a visceral disdain for the idea.
We know that, with little broad conversation, the System approached the PA Board of Education about a waiver of its 120-credit option last spring. And let me begin by saying that we do not hold it against anyone — be it a faculty member, a university president, or a chancellor — for entertaining new ideas.
But this idea was not discussed broadly with the faculty last spring before the System approached the Board, and now we are hearing whispers — I don’t know that it is true — that there will be another attempt. If there is not another attempt planned, please consider my remarks as merely informative. If there is a plan in the works, please register this as my association’s opposition to the notion.
No one denies that a college education is very expensive. And this Board deserves all of the credit in the world for its efforts, buttressed recently by the governor and the legislature, to keep the cost of college low. In fact, I think that there needs to be greater awareness among the public of the steps taken to tackle affordability.
But why should we not go down this route of three-year degrees? Simply put, we ought to have more respect for our students. I do not mean to imply that students would not want — rightfully — a less-expensive education. But we know that one cannot simply lop off a full year of credits without cost to the students.
Let us remember that, at many of our universities, it used to take more than 120 credits to graduate, and the System required us to reduce that. At that time, there were good arguments on both sides, but the notion of 120 credits was well within the norm.
But that 120-credit limit creates a zero-sum situation. As our universities consider what courses every student should be exposed to, adding something already means removing something — a choice that is extremely difficult.
In a world where intelligence is too often downgraded, science and the scientific method are mocked, information is distorted, education and expertise are disregarded, and the liberal arts are viewed with scorn, reducing credits might seem sexy. But what will be lost? Will we reduce general-education requirements? Major requirements? How would it be accomplished? Something has to go; it would be a new zero-sum situation. Or will there be a policy enacted that faculty will be required to implement?
Enacting three-year-degree programs sends the message that degree programs are riddled with fat, and it contains within it a notion that students are currently wasting their time and money. So for those who say, “Why not just try it?”, I would say that you should be conscious of the message you send and the possible impacts on students’ futures. You would be gambling with others’ lives. Our students’ potential.
I fear that the thinking that leads to these types of ideas is part of a greater battle, which we started losing when too many act as if the only point of a college degree is to get a job. Forget being a better citizen, a more thoughtful person, a better consumer of information, etc.
Perhaps most dangerous is that such a degree potentially creates a two-tier system where those without means get one type of education and those with means get the better ones. Does it also mean they get the better job? The better future?
Lurking behind this idea is the simple truth that higher education is too expensive. But the answer doesn’t lie in misleading students or creating tiered education. The answer is harder: It means properly funding our universities. The answer lies in upholding both parts of the System’s mission, that is, to provide an affordable and a high-quality education.
Again, if the Board has decided to no longer pursue this, kudos. If not, please know that your faculty think that it is a terrible idea, and that we think our students deserve better, and that the concept is not anywhere ripe enough for serious contemplation given the dearth of public contemplation of a risky topic.