why four years

Here’s a response I got from the post before last: “I have a question that I have posed to colleagues who can only say ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ My question is: Where does the concept of the four-year college degree come from? Why four years? Why not two, or five, or seventeen? Why is four the magic number? I know it predates Carnegie contact hours and whatnot, but I can’t find a good answer anywhere. Can you shed some light on this?”

American Higher Education

Well, I looked this up in my favorite reference book on higher ed history (yes, I have one), American Higher Education by Christopher J. Lucas. I didn’t find a particular origin, but a couple of references suggest this has been with us for a very long time, and certainly – as you point out – predates the credit hour, an innovation of the 1910s.  This is from his chapter on the 13th and 14th centuries:

A composite of university life indicates upwards of four or five years elapsing between a student’s initial admission and the series of academic trials required for his obtaining the medieval equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. (p50)

In the U.S. we adopted the four-year curriculum wholesale and uncritically:

The course of study offered by the typical colonial college very much reflected the earliest settlers’ resolve to effect a translation studii – a direct transfer of higher learning from ancient seats of learning at Queen’s College in Oxford and Emmanuel College at Cambridge to the frontier outposts of the American wilderness . . .

During the first year of study, Greek, Hebrew, logic and rhetoric were curricular staples. In the second year to them were added logic and “natural philosophy.” The third year brought moral philosophy (ethics) and Aristotelian metaphysics, followed in a fourth year by mathematics and advanced philological studies in classical languages, supplemented by a smattering of Syriac and Aramaic. (p. 109)

So, four years.  But get a load of that course list — and we thought our GE was musty.  I think it’s telling that in the centuries since then, we’ve changed almost everything about this curriculum except its duration.


We can attribute its durability over the centuries in a couple of ways:

1.  We never got around to changing it, because measuring learning in ways other than seat time is so hard.

2.  We’ve deliberately held it to four years because experience indicates it’s the right period of time.

I suspect it’s both.  People get something valuable from time on task, so there’s more to this structure’s longevity than just habit.  But that doesn’t let us off the hook:  if we still expect people to set aside all that time, then we should be better at defining what that something valuable is.

More on that next time.


2 thoughts on “why four years

  1. Ken,

    Great point. Talk about an anachronistic measurement. Demographically in the last twenty years what percentage of American students achieved that “four year” degree in four years — start to finish — as most of us dinosaurs did in the days when Fred Flintsone was our professor — or was that Harold Bloom?


  2. Thank you Ken! This is great information. While higher ed has moved to 5- or 6-year graduation rates to measure persistence, the concept of the 4-year degree remains firmly entrenched in our minds and in the culture. Experience may be proving that it’s no longer the right period of time. I’m going to get the Lucas book and do some further reading.

    I remain your biggest fan!

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