Higher Ed’s New 90-Hour Degree Scheme

In an experiment begun in 2005, Disney determined that customers would pay more—a lot more—to get a little more time at their parks. Guests paid a premium to stay at a Disney hotel to gain an extra hour of park access. Disney’s “Magic Hours” demonstrated that when customers find something valuable, they may even challenge diminishing marginal utility to get more of it.

Like a theme park, colleges and universities have been aggressive in their pricing. Tuition increases outpace inflation, but the “value proposition” of the bachelor’s degree remains essentially unchanged. Some university administrators are now calling for 90-hour bachelor degrees. In an era of declining revenue and enrollment, this is not reform. Rather, these administrators are firefighters who turn out to be an arsonists.

Doubling Down on Failure

Higher ed is failing. It is unclear what students are learning, particularly when tracked from entry to exit. The number of hours spent studying has likely plateaued. Poor mental health among undergrads is a national scandal. Increasingly ideological faculty research, including “grievance studies,” makes a mockery of real scholarship and shifts the burden of teaching to exhausted adjuncts. Few schools offer anything that looks like a core curriculum. Accreditation and other regulatory oversight, including initiatives to assess “program quality” or “mapping objectives,” enlist more administrators than ever before but provide no substantial oversight. ITT Tech and DeVry were accredited too, after all.

Reducing the number of credit hours trades away higher ed’s last comparative advantage, in-person classrooms, to double down on the impersonalized credentialist rot that accelerated during COVID. Imagine if Disney discounts its ticket price by some amount but begins to offer “virtual park hours” or “theme park equivalencies” in lieu of extended park hours. Watch the webcams at Epcot! Create your own Space Mountain at home! Disney Park Representatives will “certify” your experience! No one would buy it.

Moving accreditors off the 120-hour degree just shifts attention from Carnegie credit hour measurements to “objectives” and “assessment,” two wooden nickels already minted in abundance for accreditation. Schools currently struggling with enrollment, finances, or underemployment of graduates have already checked all their accreditation boxes by mapping objectives, assessments, and outcomes. What they’ve not done is revisit what’s happening in their classrooms. Rather than do that heavy lifting, they’ll propose to make up for the shortfall in classroom hours by testing skills.

“Competency-based learning” and “alternative assessment” trade testing centers for relationships. Measurement replaces mentorship. Selling education as “skills” that can be “tested” avoids the hard work of forming students as persons. “Experiential learning” and “student development pieces” (i.e., glorified projects) eliminate faculty or turn them into graders for skills tests.

Racing to the Bottom

Those hoping to fight the high cost of education with a 90-hour degree are like Russian generals sending a convoy of armored vehicles into the teeth of cheap drones and anti-tank weapons. The battlefield has changed since the last failed attempt at an accredited 90-hour degree. High school students now pursue “dual enrollment” or begin their undergrad careers at inexpensive community colleges that have articulation agreements with universities. Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate programs, and College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests are still used to earn college credit. If there was no reason to approve the first request for a 90-hour degree, there is even less reason to do so now. Although American students do go abroad for abbreviated undergrad degrees, countries like Canada are offering more four-year degree programs. If residential costs are the problem, there are more credentials than ever that can be earned in one’s pajamas.

If colleges hope to become expensive job training centers, hands-on skills are better imparted in the context in which they are used. Also, inexpensive crash courses and self-study already prove effective for certifications and licenses. Neither a Series 7 exam nor a real estate license, for example, require campuses or dedicated faculty, a cafeteria, a lazy river in the rec center, or any Carnegie credit hour minimums. Work is excellent preparation for work; classrooms are intended for thinking and discussing. The confusion between the two has turned much of higher education into a category error.

Robert Zemsky can propose this race to the bottom from the gilded halls of UPenn because they’ll never do it there. Nor will there ever be a 90-hour degree at Tulane, George Washington University, or any other school thought to be premium goods. Even the military academies, institutions largely devoted to “skills,” will not offer 90-hour degrees. Schools like Hillsdale seek to transform their students through residency. Elite institutions will continue to command a premium while the rest begin a rusty knife fight to sell credentials and credits on the cheap.

If reformers want to do something truly revolutionary, they can begin by restoring what education does best. Replace “pertinent” with permanent. Impart wisdom through faculty who love their subject as much as they love their students. When Disney starts cutting park hours by 25%, universities can talk about cutting their credit hours by 25%. What real colleges and universities have to offer is far more significant than any theme park. If we cannot figure out how to use our classrooms and relationships properly, then a better number would be 100%. Cut the required credit hours entirely and build theme parks on closed campuses. Dorm guests get an extra ride down the lazy river in the old rec building.

Image: Tweeted by @LSU


8 thoughts on “Higher Ed’s New 90-Hour Degree Scheme

  1. The countries that have 3 year bachelors degree programs also have much more intensive and specialized high school programs. Students in those countries graduate secondary education with the equivalent of either a year of US undergrad credit, or entry level trade certifications. American students applying to universities in those countries typically need to have taken a certain number of AP or IB classes, or do a foundation year.

    1. Also was going to say that in other countries where they have this, the students apply to the specific major instead of the university. In the US, students are admitted to the school and choose what they want to major in later (except for certain programs). Most colleges require students to take a certain number of electives outside of their primary field of study. And that’s in addition to the school’s core curriculum.

  2. What I like about this article and these comments is how optimistic they are. After 10 years of teaching at a university, and having tenure, I have lost most of my hope. Yale administrators now outnumber undergraduates. At my school, a swollen DEI administrative level dwarfs departments in power and in distributing money and in making academic decisions. People with no experience in the field sit in on hiring committees. There are mini-Deans everwhere. Semi-and vice-provosts everywhere. Faculty–even tenured faculty–have less and less power. Ancient languages have no respect. Traditions are lost. Comics and movies and pop culture and sexualities rule the humanities. What young males are left (running about 45%) tend to tilt toward math, econ, physics, poly sci, business. Right now, certifications of various kinds, gained cumulatively, look pretty attractive. Less wasted time and no need to put up with all the indoctrination that comes with a college degree.

  3. A credit used to be 17 50-minute meetings of a class. Exclusive of finals.

    When Saturday classes were eliminated, an extra 25 minutes was tacked onto the Tuesday/Thursday classes. Likewise the 2.5 hours once-a-week classes, 110 minutes with a 10 minute break.

    While none of this was educationally sound, it still was the same number of minutes.

    But then the 17-week semester was shortened to 14 weeks, with some fall semesters only 13 weeks in years when Labor Day is late. (No more finals after Christmas.)

    Worse, classes were no longer taught on holidays. IHEs now close when it snows — which they didn’t have to do when everyone, including faculty, lived within walking distance of campus.

    Hence the 120 credit degree has already become a 90 credit degree, if not less.

    That said, this is about money.

    The entry-level classes are highly profitable. Several hundred students packed into a lecture hall makes them cheap to teach while the IHE is getting not only full tuition but all of the other fees, eg housing, meals, athletic, etc.

    The IHE won’t get this money if students attend a community college or get CLEP or AP credit. Worse upperclassmen are allowed to live off-campus, and they want their dorms full.

    So if you graduate people at the end of their Junior year, you can increase each class by 1/3 and hence the students you make money on by 2/3. Your costs remain the same and hence you make more money.

    It’s all about the money….

  4. Some universities, such as mine, have a new trick: accelerated masters degree programs. You can take graduate courses as an upper-division undergraduate and the course credits apply towards both the BS degree and the MS degree. This means you get your MS typically within one year after the BS degree.

    It’s a joke. The student does not learn more because they actually do less coursework. Nothing but a marketing gimmick to fool students into thinking they are getting a quality engineering education. Actually, the result is just a watered down MS degree program.

  5. The real result would be to eliminate a lot of wasted time on watered down and politicized liberal arts classes for STEM students. It’s funny how STEM majors are required to take 30-40 cr of liberal arts courses to obtain a degree, but most liberal arts degrees require less than 20 cr of STEM courses – my BS in chemistry from Purdue required more semester hours of foreign languages alone than most liberal arts BAs of the time required of math and science classes – plus I had to take at least 21 cr of other electives. I enjoyed the classes – I all but minored in history (and published a course paper in a journal) and even spent a semester working in an animal lab for psychology research credit – but the disparity in what was considered a “broad” education was glaring, and raised suspicions that the non-major requirements largely existed to subsidize the liberal arts programs at a STEM and agriculture-oriented university.

  6. “Even the military academies, institutions largely devoted to “skills,” will not offer 90-hour degrees.”

    Now this is not only condescending, but very ignorant. My nephew who graduated from the Naval Academy could tell Anonymous that it is a pretty serious place, with an emphasis on engineering. “Skills” if you like. I imagine the other academies are similar. They are probably among the least likely to cut back to 90 hrs.

    From what I can tell, much of the impetus for the scaled-back degrees is coming from the attacks on higher education coming from what passes now for the conservative wing of the country. The academic world would do well to resist (notwithstanding its many current shortcomings).

    1. Never forget that MIT is a land grant college. Engineering is neither a liberal art nor was taught at liberal arts colleges until fairly recently.

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