There are some examples out there of full-on re-design of programs from four years of seat time to three years of competencies. The best known is probably at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which was the subject of a recent book called Saving Higher Education: The Integrated, Competency-Based Three-Year Bachelor Degree Program. The basics of program re-design are relatively straightforward – working backward from a statement of graduate competencies (outcomes, basically), you work out how to introduce, reinforce and perfect those competencies in the space of 3 normal academic years. SNHU went whole-hog on this, even replacing “courses” with non-concurrent “modules,” hence ditching the idea that all academic units need to be of one term’s duration. Few, in fact, last more than six weeks (in Canada, this would probably force a re-jig of student aid policy due to the 12-week rule).
It’s pretty clear this approach can work in fields like business (which is where it was piloted at SNHU and the University of Charleston); it’s also clear that it can be implemented in a relatively short period of time provided you’re prepared to pay a load of cash for faculty release so they can do the hard slog of program and course re-design. What’s not clear is whether this model actually works in a field other than business. Even SNHU and Charleston – both of whom are fairly evangelical about the 3-year degree – have yet to really see the model break into other areas of study.
There’s no reason it can’t be done, of course. We could go the route of the European Credit Transfer System and base credits on expected hours of work, not seat time. We could re-design whole programs around outcomes, and then put a whole lot more thought into course-sequencing so that students would continue to acquire competencies in a consistent fashion across the curriculum. This is all possible. But what it would really mean – in the arts and sciences, anyway – is ditching the whole smorgasboard curriculum we’ve had since the 1960s. The outcomes-based approach only really works if you keep relatively tight control of courses taken; too much student freedom messes up the careful laddering of competencies.
There’s a case to be made that this kind of change saves money and results in better outcomes. But even if it is the “right” thing to do, it’s not clear that either students or professors are interested. Bluntly, we prefer the inefficiency of the present system. Overcoming that preference is the biggest barrier to three-year degrees.