David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
The Realignment Game

September 4, 2023

We may have finally come to a major seismic shift in higher education. And it has nothing to do with the catastrophe that is college sports, although it bears some troubling similarities.

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities has approved Bachelor's degree programs that are 90-94 total credits versus the industry standard of 120 credits, finally an official act in reducing the time to graduation for students. For two decades, at least, colleges and universities have pretended to "accelerate" the time to graduation by shortening semesters, encouraging full-time coursework in the summer, or awarding credit for prior learning, but never, never, by admitting that you might earn a Bachelor's degree by taking fewer credits.

Should be a win, right? Well, maybe if you also see Rutgers' wrestling team traveling to USC on a regular basis as a win.

Something had to be eliminated to get from 120 to 90. Instead of it being Oregon State and Washington State (poor decimated Pac 12), within curriculum the dreaded "electives" were the first to go. In the Inside Higher Ed article, BYU-Idaho, one of the two schools to have these 3-year programs blessed by the Northwest Commission, will be offering 3 year degrees in "applied business management, family and human services, software development, applied health, and professional studies." All of these are sans electives.

The BYU-Idaho spokesperson asserts, "we found ourselves in this awkward situation of saying, ‘All right, you’ve completed everything that’s required for the degree, except you need another 30 credits roughly of whatever classes you want.’ And it seems so disingenuous, I think, to say that to this working father or working mother that’s trying to take care of their families and put food on the table." (Tempted to correct his "that" to "who," but maybe that slip is evident that not everything has been turned over to Artificial Intelligence.) I would say it is also disingenuous to say that degree programs are designed to have all of the major-specific courses taken up front, leaving all the electives at the end. Very few students proceed through college in such a compartmentalized way of courses.

Except that some programs have now been designed that way. The long-accepted premise that college is a journey for people to learn broadly and widely, not only about the world, but themselves, has been obliterated for decades. The very real need to further train adults for advancement in their careers has changed the nature of higher education, just as football, and the money associated with it, has changed all of college sports. The problem is we're destroying the whole model to appease the most brazen of the industry.

Mind you, I am not saying that making students pay for 30 credits of "extra courses" to the major is the right thing. However, note what has been sacrificed in these Frankenstein-monsters of degrees. Not the specific courses in "Professional Studies," which appear to be a hodgepodge of 36 credits brought in from 3 certificates, a core of General Education classes, and the highly informative "Professional Projects" and "Interdisciplinary Internship." BYU-Idaho's "Family and Human Services" degree is a hodgepodge of 36 credits brought in from 2 certifications, the Gen Ed, and those same highly informative "Professional Projects" and "Interdisciplinary Internship" classes. There is nothing traditional and established in these programs, but it is where the money is. That's o.k. We get it, UCLA, the problem is Oregon State; the solution appears to be Northwestern.

The results here are glorified trades degrees, and we don't need glorified trade degrees. Their certificates, their associate degrees, their professional certifications, are enough and valuable for what they are. However, similar to how every job associated with health care keeps getting elevated degree requirements (where the Bachelor's was once enough, now a Master's, and soon to be a Doctorate, will be required), the same is happening in industry. Companies don't want to pay for the training their people might need to advance, so let's pass the problem on to higher education. Colleges and Universities don't even have to fit that need now in a world of badges and online certifications, but we better not close the door, not with high school populations decreasing for the foreseeable future.

I would also argue that there aren't nearly enough advancement possibilities for all the adults who earn these degrees. Where is the outrage when Blue-Collar Dad has his Bachelor's degree in "Applied Business Management" and still laid off? Meanwhile, the door opens more and more for the public, for legislatures, for narrow-minded people, to eliminate liberal arts degrees or the pathway to self-awareness that is what many college degrees are supposed to represent.

Last I looked we still had a large population of high school graduates who could use every bit of structured education to figure out who they are and how they fit into a changing world. Shhh, I almost hate to say it, but they may need it more than ever.

I have argued previously at this site that the 120 degree standard for a Bachelor's Degree is arbitrary and illogically rigid. As specialization across all fields has been emphasized, the core curriculum of a college degree has been gutted. There is a reason that West Virginia University wants to eliminate an entire foreign languages department. Can realignment be done more thoughtfully? What are ways to reinvent college degrees that don't destroy the values of our tradition, like the PAC 10, and make the entire higher education landscape better off? Perhaps I am just a dreamer.

Now, please excuse me, I need to go watch Central Florida take on Brigham Young in lacrosse.