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Here’s how to save thousands in tuition: take a three-year degree

This month, hundreds of thousands of 18 and 19-year-olds are heading to university campuses all across Canada in eager anticipation of the first year of university life. The vast majority of these freshmen will pursue a four-year degree, which is the standard amount of time it takes to complete a bachelor's degree in this country.

Although it is true that the university experience is highly rewarding for students both academically and socially, it is also true that a postsecondary education comes with an expensive price tag which could leave students heavily indebted after graduation.

Arguably one of the most effective solutions to the problem of mounting costs for students, at once radical and simple, would be to shorten the typical four-year undergraduate degree to three years. After all, do students really need to spend four years as an undergrad? Is a four-year degree somehow intrinsically superior to a three-year degree? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding no.

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A three-year degree would greatly benefit students, starting with the thousands of dollars of savings from an entire year's tuition, room and board fees, textbook fees and other ancillary fees. That money could be used to fund a post-graduate degree later on.

The current bias among Canadian students, parents and educators in favour of the standard four-year undergraduate degree and against the three-year degree is largely due to accidental habit, and not based on any substantial underlying logic.

Take the argument that a three-year degree leaves students intellectually deprived in some way. Three years is thought not to be enough time for an undergraduate student to fully develop her cognitive and critical thinking skills, thus leaving her ill-prepared to thrive in today's competitive knowledge economy.

In the United Kingdom, however, almost all bachelor's degrees take three years to complete. (Indeed, this is why I chose to pursue my undergraduate studies in the U.K.) Students in the U.K. go through the same number of years of primary and secondary schooling as do most students in Canada, yet bachelor's degrees take one year less to complete.

The shorter three-year degree in the U.K. (and in many other Western European countries for that matter) has obviously not resulted in a worrying deficit of skills or knowledge among the workforce. Indeed, the World Economic Forum's 2013-2014 Global Competiveness report, which ranks countries based on their capacity to produce long-term prosperity and the productivity of their workforce, puts the U.K. four spots ahead of Canada.

Yet another criticism is that a three-year degree would only be appropriate for a small percentage of exceptionally talented and motivated students who are able to withstand the increased stress of finishing a degree in a reduced time frame.

This assumption, however, rests on a misguided notion. A three-year degree does not necessarily mean having to cram the same amount of material in a shorter time period. Rather than add to a student's burden, a three-year degree can actually lessen the pressure a student faces since it could focus exclusively on the main subjects that are relevant to the chosen degree without the need for a student to complete a bunch of often unnecessary credit requirements in domains unrelated to the chosen degree.

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For example, at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, every Bachelor of Science student is required to complete three to six credits each year from the following extraneous subjects: Drama, Music, Art History, or some other subject in the Arts. In the same vein, every Bachelor of Commerce student at the University of Toronto is required to complete a number of courses in completely unrelated fields such as "Living Things and Their Environment" and "The Physical Universe." If these silly distribution requirements are done away with and teaching became more targeted, there is no reason why an undergraduate degree cannot be condensed to three years.

Despite being one-quarter cheaper and more practical than a four-year undergraduate degree, the three-year alternative has so far failed to gain much traction in Canada. The reality is that powerful stakeholder groups have a vested interest in the status quo. Universities, and by extension professors, lecturers, administrators and other support staff would much prefer the standard four-year degree structure since having more students at one place at one time means higher revenues.

James Yan is a member of The Globe and Mail's Student Advisory Council. He is currently pursuing a double major in Philosophy and Economics at University College, London.

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