Shorter Degree

Via Insty I saw the redoubtable Joanne Jacobs’s take on this topic.  Back when I decided to go back to college, I was astonished to learn that a simple B.A. degree would take me four years to attain.  Four years?  Everywhere else in the world only requires three.

Then I studied the curriculum, and started to understand why the late Joseph Sobran lamented that in a single generation, our society had “progressed” from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching remedial English at university — a.k.a. the “core curriculum” which required a full year to be wasted on shit like “how to write a sentence” (English 101), “how the U.S. and state governments work” (Pol Sci 001/002), “Math For Dummies” (Math 001), and so on.  Even a “trimmed” course load for this mandatory study looks dubious, as Jacobs notes:

[Greg] Poliakoff would require all students to take “expository writing, literature, a college-level mathematics course, a natural science course, an economics course, a survey in U.S. history or government, and three semesters of a foreign language.”

What a total waste of time, in my case at any rate.  Fortunately, there are ways to “test out” of various courses — for some reason, the fact that I had published three novels somehow persuaded the English Department that I wouldn’t need English 101, for instance — so I was able to reduce some of the bullshit course load, but still not enough to shorten the four years into three that way.

Next, I ran into the stupid restriction that only allows students to take on four courses per semester which, when I studied the course content, made it plain that I would be prevented from tackling five and even six, even though it was easily doable.  My pleas to the Arts Faculty to do so were rejected Because Rules — clearly, the rules are there to protect the Grease Pit Set and Snowflakes from actual hard work, whereas I could see at a glance that the content for all but the 4-level History courses was not only light but superficial.  (Without exception, my requests for a supplemental reading list for a course were met with a “you’re not from this planet” look from the various professors — one admitted to me that she had never received such a request from a student before.  At Wits University in Johannesburg back in the 1970s, every liberal arts course had a supplemental reading list which, while not officially required, was necessary if you wanted to actually pass the course.)

So I attacked the degree with ferocity, taking all the summer / winter vacation classes I could.  (Strange, isn’t it, that professors can teach a course in three weeks that takes a full semester otherwise?)

Anyway, with all that my B.A. still took me three and a half years*, simply because the course schedules often didn’t jell with my degree plan — the one course I needed for a French sub-major (Business French) wasn’t taught in any “summer-mester”, and clashed with a History class during the regular semester, so I ended up taking instead a useless class of English short stories (during which the professor admitted to me privately that I could have taught, let alone studied) and passing up on a French sub-major.

The cynic in me thinks that the overly-long undergraduate degree is driven simply by financial greed — one less year equals a loss of $30,000 in revenue per student — but I will concede that without the bullshit core curriculum, the failure / dropout rate would probably be much higher than it already is.  (And that, of course, is the fault of the high school education kids get these days, but don’t get me started.)

It’s a racket, pure and simple.

*summa cum laude (for my non-U.S. Readers, that means a 90%+ final grade for every course)


  1. One of the many people running currently for US House or Senate here in Tennessee, on the Republican ticket (the field reminds one of the 2016 Presidential primary, there are so many running), is excoriating his opponent in all the ads because the opponent “supports private school vouchers, taking money away from teachers and public schools”.

    I’m all for vouchers; I think that a little competition at the elementary, middle, and high school levels would be a great thing, and maybe it would lead to a few minor paradigm shifts at the college/university level, too.

    Mr. “No school vouchers here!” will not be getting my vote today.

  2. The issues with education start long before High School. Back when mastodons walked the earth (I’m not QUITE old enough for dinosaurs) I tutored math in High School (1977-1981, NYC public schools), and there were High School students who literally couldn’t add two, two-digit numbers. The shouldn’t have gotten out of second grade, let along get TO High School. This was at a time when students WERE left back in grade school if they didn’t pass.

    I can’t imagine things have improved in the last 40 years either, we didn’t waste time in 3rd grade learning about condoms and gender-fluidity instead of addition and subtraction.

  3. Of course it’s a racket. Everything degenerates into a racket, as someone I am too lazy to look up said.
    Back in the day it was possible to do it in three years, with a combination of AP credit, heavy course load, summer school, and testing out. I did it, for a BSE, but not many others seemed interested, even back then.
    The only institutional pushback I ever got was from the prof running the research project where I worked. When he discovered he was going to have to double my pay as a grad student instead of undergrad, he was miffed.
    Finally, if I recall correctly, “summa” used to mean 100% (4-point, 5-point, whatever the top is). “Magna” used to mean 95% and simple “cum laude” was a 90% threshold. Probably grade inflation has changed all that.

  4. Cynic or not it’s absolutely driven by financial goals. The super-racket when I attended was the bookstore (pre internet). $300 for a textbook that you were lucky to sell back for .15 on the dollar, for which they resold as used for $200. And it was a company store so no effective competition. It’s one of the reasons I have zero affection for my Alma Mater.

    1. Sounds like the bookstore at my school that charged $30 more for the book that included “free software” until the professor for that course raised a stink about it.

      1. I laughed so hard I entirely lost my breath when I found out college books were getting scanned and posted onto ‘warez’ piracy sites. Shocking, I must say… *snort*

    2. In my University, you could sell the book back as you said, unless there was a “new” edition coming out before the fall semester. That almost always meant a new title page with “Second Edition” and a preface by the author with a little rearrangement of the paragraphs and a more recent date after his name. More ambitious revisions included the chapters getting new titles, or positions, or slightly different problems at the end of the chapters.
      MY alma mater has stopped calling. 🙂

  5. It’s a mystery that men like Musk, Branson, or McAfee have not seen fit to invest seriously in secondary and post-secondary academies.. It’s long past time to separate the strands of scholarship, training, and research.

  6. I went to a 2800 student all boys high school in the late 50’s that taught math so well (through calculus and beyond) that I didn’t have to crack a math book in engineering school until late in the junior year, took three years of a foreign language, had to take mech drawing, sheet metal, pattern making, foundry and forge and machine shops, took thermodynamics and mechanics, physics, analytical chemistry, and had a great books list covering Greek classics through mid-20th century from which we had to read ten over each summer and be able to discuss during the following year; we also had to read the editorial pages from which $5 vocabulary words would be thrown at us randomly every day. Any engineering school in the country would take us as sophomores.
    Then in ~1977, the school system got a black superintendent, and he did away with the program as racially discriminating against blacks.
    And so it goes; lower the bar, demand nothing, social promotion for all, spew out non-functional, unemployable drones.

  7. I would say money is a big part of it but it’s not just money.

    It’s a bit of a soap-box issue for me, the fact that middle class America only seems to have one “model” of success: Go to college, get a degree and then go into middle management. Starting a business or going into some kind of trade are for the fringes.

    But just like you can’t have an Army where everybody is an officer (who is going to dig the latrines or pull guard duty?), you can’t have a business where everybody is a middle manager whose job it is to put cover sheets on the TPS reports.

    College, then, is not just a racket for the colleges and universities (who, BTW, LOVE to publish “statistics” that show that people with 4 year degress earn XX% more on average than those who don’t – can you say “conflict of interest?”) There is a “College industrial complex” as Ike might have said, that is made up of thousands of businesses whose only mission is to cater to the needs and wants of college students living off of student loans. THOSE people ALSO love the idea of parking little Susie or Britny or Thad at State U for 4 years.

    As a society, we also seem to think that young people deserve to have a 4 year bacchanalia of drinking and screwing at Mommy and Daddy (and the taxpayer’s) expense before they dutifully cut their hair and join the ranks of the corporate cannon fodder and move to a house in the ‘burbs.

    Truth be told, it may be that there is also a benefit in keeping youngsters out of the job market for 4 years, which means fewer people competing for jobs and in turn keeps wages higher. But whether that offsets the actual costs of college to society, is doubtful.

    As with many others here, I didn’t go to college when I turned 18, I went into the Army, and I’m glad I did. When I did finally choose to go to college I was in my 30’s and had life experience and had seen a bit of the world, which put me in a much better position to understand and appreciate what I was learning.

    Because let’s face it, 18 year olds are stupid (as a former 18 year old I can testify to that.) Most of them would be much better off going into the work force, learning a trade, enlisting in the service, or even working their way across the ocean on a tramp steamer than sitting in a college classroom and listening to some boring grad student drone on about stuff they have no way of knowing or understanding.

    I am a product of a Jesuit grade school and high school, and our mutual disaffection for each other notwithstanding, I am better for it. I finished high school in 3 years, scored the highest possible GCT/ARI score, joined the Navy at 17 and tested out (CLEP’d) of almost all my community college courses whilst stationed in Great Lakes and Florida. I finished my first hitch with a AS in Biology/Physics and subsequently earned a BJ (Bachelors of Journalism) from the University of Missouri-Columbia, on my way to law school at University of Chicago. Unfortunately, that effort was cut short by a long-term and eventually fatal lung disease my wife contracted, and I wound up back in the Navy for another 33 years (37 total). On the way, the Navy paid for me to become a PA, then a clinical engineer and finally, at the age of 42, a 3rd master’s (MSIS) in healthcare information systems engineering. I got through every one of those degree programs because the Jesuits taught me not only how to study, but how to learn and apply knowledge.

    Today, my stepsons, who both went to a better than average high school, are dragging themselves through college, changing majors every semester to something easier and less challenging. Neither one can construct a complete sentence, have any presentation skills, nor do they intend to acquire any. Two former engineering majors who are now sociology and business communications majors respectively. Both at $35,000/year schools that make it impossible to complete a liberal arts degree in 4 years and a STEM degree will take at least 5, if not 6.

    It’s a scam. My nephew went to junior college for a tech degree in electronics, opened his own electrical company after earning his journeyman card and now installs remote power systems all over the midwest. He’s just turned 30 and will probably make $250k this year.

    My second (current and last) wife was briefly an adjunct professor of clinical pathophysiology at a University here in the DC burbs. They have a zero attrition policy and it was explained to her by the department chair that everyone would get as many chances as necessary to pass tests, and if they couldn’t pass the regular test, she was to devise one they could. A lot of her students couldn’t be trusted to take a tire pressure, let alone a blood pressure and had no business in nursing. She resigned mid-semester.

    1. “Two former engineering majors who are now sociology and business communications majors respectively. Both at $35,000/year schools that make it impossible to complete a liberal arts degree in 4 years and a STEM degree will take at least 5, if not 6.”

      Sorry, Topcat, but your Jesuits would not be pleased.

      Replace the period after “respectively” with a comma, uncapitalize the word “Both”, and then add a comma after the word “degree”, and it will make more sense. Otherwise, you have two incomplete sentences.

      Yeah, I went to a Catholic high school too. Why do you ask?

      (I’m kidding with you, of course. I agree with your rant.)

        1. Hell, just trying to type anything on an iPhone with my ham hands and elephant fingers is a problem, so I feel your pain.

          1. Typing on an iPhone is one thing. Contending with Auto Correct is something else entirely.
            Somebody told me that Auto Correct is the work of the Devil, and whoever invented it should go straight to Hello.

  9. OMG, did you hit a nerver here! Yowza.

    Yes, it’s a racket, for sure, follow the money. But it’s also by design — destroying the education system has been a goal of communists for over a century. And Bill Ayers, U of Chiraq education professor (and convicted terrorist) is behind it all.

    Money quote from this article: “My interest in Bill Ayers began a few years ago when I learned about his career as a “Distinguished Professor of Education.” In reality he was working to destroy everything that was good about our education system.”


    Like some of you, I was a product of nuns and Jesuit high school. The Jesuit philosophy of education, at least back in the day, was a thorough grounding in the Classics and corporal punishment–i.e., teach a boy Latin and Greek and beat him regularly, and he’ll turn out OK. But seriously, the high school education I received in the 1960’s at a private, Jesuit, all-boys (then) school was simply the equivalent of any run-of-the-mill PUBLIC high school education in America from the late 1800’s through about WWII.

    We had to take either two years each of two languages, or three years of one (Latin, Greek, French, German, or Spanish). We took several literature courses, both American and World Literature, and composition. Plenty of history, again both American and World. Math through college algebra at least, or the equivalent of college Calculus I if you could. A year each of Biology and Chemistry, and a year of Physics was an elective. EVERY student took one semester of typing and one semester of speech (very practical). There were plenty of elective, among them college Microeconomics 101, which steered me to an Econ degree in college later. About 98% of our graduates went on to college (including minorities), and over 80% went to the college of their first choice. But if you stopped there and became a tradesman, you’d have had a better educational foundation at that point than probably 90% of today’s college graduates.

    Now you MUST go to private schools at the secondary level to get this, for the most part. Maybe not in Danbury, Connecticut, but pretty much anywhere else in the public school system good luck with getting a decent education. You simply cannot. Period.

    So, both my kids, who also went to private grammar and high schools (Catholic grade school and high school for daughter, military high school for son) were appalled at the remedial courses that they had to test out of when they got to college. My daughter did test out of them handily, but the nature of the tests for math, reading comprehension, and writing were, in her opinion, stuff she mastered in grade school, forget high school.

    She went to her guidance counselor and asked about these tests (both kids went to Drexel University in Philly — not Ivy League [thankfully] but pretty well-respected) and the response she got? The prof told her, yes, the level of competence of incoming students must seem abysmal to her, with her background, but these were bright kids, not dummies, and the prof said, “Look, these kids are not being taught these things effectively in the public education system today–it’s NOT THEIR FAULT they don’t know this stuff.” (Son went to Army basic, then to community college for two years, and just rolled with the courses, you couldn’t get out of them at community college. He, smartly, figured his eventual Drexel diploma would say B.S. Economic with no note about “BTW he was only here 2 years. Now he has GI Bill money left for an MBA.)

    The professor went on to say that regardless of how bright the kids are, if Drexel did not have the remedial ‘Readin, Ritin, & Rithmetic’ courses, the students would be hopelessly unequipped to get a degree. Therefore much of their first year is wasted on stuff that should have been prerequisite but is not.

    So, on top of universities becoming money grubbing diploma mills churning out disaffected youth with nothing to do but ‘protest’ in places like Portland right now … our educational system in this country was INTENTIONALLY sabotaged by the patient communists in our midst. To quote one of Kim’s “Kimisms” I see a RCOB every time I think on this topic.


  10. My 1st college was a private, religious 2-yr institution that served as a feeder into a larger 4-yr school. I went there more due to family tradition than because I thought it’d be the best school for me, but, eh.. whatever. only ended up going there 1 year anyway.

    A “full load” schedule was considered to be 12 hours a week (with 2 of those hours being a religion course, since, you know.. religious school). I took 20. In the engineering track. With music electives becuz I liked to play the trumpet in the band.

    Everyone who found out looked at me like I was a bug-eyed alien. Funny thing was, many of the “foundational” courses were literal repeats of courses I’d taken in 11th and 12th grades in high school — some even used the same textbooks. I didn’t have a class before 9 am, nor after 3 pm, and was done at noon on Fridays. The schedule was pathetically easy, even at “such a massive course load.”

    One of my engineering profs had all of us look at the course requirements for the various engineering programs, and since most of them only needed 1 or 2 classes more than the basic Mechanical path… well, I had planned a course of study that had I done the full 2-year stint there I’d have been graduated with *17* different engineering degrees.

    Yeah, 17 degrees by adding a mere 9 courses over the course of 2 years. Just shows how easy it is to do credentialism also.

  11. Much of this article and the comments may as well be chinese to me.

    I grew-up on a farm; I and my siblings were home-schooled by all our aunts and uncles and family friends and neighbors.
    My father was the youngest of seven, so many of our cousins were his age and older.
    One patient mentor was my Uncle Jesse (middle name ‘James’), an engineer building dams in south America and bridges in Afrika.

    My cousin Sonny was a helicopter pilot during the Korea invasion, so us kids got plenty of windscreen time in a variety of small aircraft he parked at the field up the way.

    My aunts and grandmothers included quality performers on piano and a broad variety (they would laugh-scold me describing them as ‘broad’) of other instruments, while fluent in a vast variety of languages.
    These were intelligent people.
    Their mastery of their households and their support of our farm surely indicates an equivalent of advanced university degrees… with few attending government schools for any length of time before running screaming for the hills.

    Each week, cousin Betty presented us kids with a bag of books.
    Each of us kids chose one, read it, then stood after supper in front of everybody to give our book-report.
    Early on, I realized my hunger for more than one book per week… or more than one book a day.

    Two points come back to me from all this reading and the resulting discussions:
    * I quickly understood the value of ‘why?’, as in ‘why do you think the characters did …?’
    I generally got through about five ‘whys’ before my limited understanding of the text required a second read for the foundation of an advanced book-report a couple-three days later.
    * I developed an appreciation of the spoken word, talking as an art, a way to know somebody, instead of merely interrupting with my opinion.

    At about 12-years old, I formulated a plan to travel while getting paid and having a great time with great people.
    Now, what could I do to accomplish this…

    I started junior college at 16.
    In the 1960s, nobody asked if I completed a lower-level curriculum.
    I signed-up, showed up, and study-grouped with my fellow students.

    At 18, I enrolled in the Physical Therapist program at U of Vancouver, B. C. (as it was known in those days).
    The bachelor degree program was, as Kim mentions, three years.
    Part-way through, I visited a job-fair on a lark, and was recruited by a global air-cargo company.
    YeeHaw!, ‘good-bye’ sequestered university, ‘hello’ world!

    This company paid me — cash money — to attend helicopter school at Alabama’s Fort Rucker and aircraft-mechanic school at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls Oklahoma.
    They paid me — more cash money — to attend dog-handler school at the cop-shop at Lackland AFB and Fort Sam near San Antone Texas.

    A half-decade later, with a truck-load of Persian rugs in my spare bedroom from our stops at airfields in Libya and Turkey and Iran, I returned to complete my three-on-the-tree degree.

    As you probably predicted, I bought a restaurant.
    I married my professor.
    I crashed a few times, lost good flying buddies to the inevitable attrition, and lost my spouse to cancers in 1984.

    I am still here.
    I attribute this to the mentors and ‘air-daddies’ in my extended family.

    No person goes alone, nobody survives long as a lone wolf.
    My advice to our younger readers:
    “Build relationships first.”

    And as Mike Rowe suggests:
    “Safety third!”

  12. Ah, Mike Rowe my hero. He articulates the silliness of many four year degrees very well.

    Some of the brightest people I have met in my life have no degree or degrees after their name.

  13. I worked in higher ed for 5 years, retiring 4 years ago. In IT, dammit! 🙂 Racket isn’t half the invective that I’d use to describe higher ed in the US.

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