Home > Uncategorized > A proposal for a new kind of degree: The “B.S.-bs”

A proposal for a new kind of degree: The “B.S.-bs”

Imagine that you needed to go to the hospital for some necessary surgery, and that the hospital staff told you that, as a matter of policy, they were also going to remove your appendix. You’d complain that your appendix was fine, and that removing it wasn’t what you were coming to the hospital for. The staff would dutifully note that you weren’t doing much with your appendix anyway, and that it could become infected later in life, at which point you’d need a much-messier emergency appendectomy, so you might as well take it out now. Plus, they’d give you a discount; since you’re coming in for other major surgery, they wouldn’t charge as much for the appendectomy as if you were coming in solely for an appendectomy. Sure, there’d be an additional scar and some additional pain during the recovery, but you’d barely notice. Ooops! Sorry! Even with the discount, you’ll still can’t afford this additional surgery any more than you could afford the surgery you actually needed, so you’ll have to take out loans to pay for all of it.

Colleges across the country are, in essence, making students pay to take out their appendix. In fact, we’ve built quite an industry around unnecessary appendectomies. I am blowing the whistle. I am turning state’s evidence. I am testifying on behalf of any student who has been subject to educational malpractice by the kinds of institutions I have been intertwined with for almost 20 years.

Georgia Tech primarily grants degrees called “Bachelor of Science,” also known as the “B.S.” I propose a new kind of degree, the “B.S.-bs,” which stands for “Bachelor of Science minus the bullshit.” We could extend the idea to other degree variants, such as “B.A.-bs.” What’s considered “bs” changes depending on the particular degree. One degree’s “bs” may be another degree’s core material.

My wife finished a B.A. in French at Rutgers in 1995. Her family did not have a lot of money, and she didn’t have much in the way of scholarships and such, so she paid her own way through college, via various jobs and student loans. She didn’t pay off her student loans until 2004. Every time she cut a check to make another student loan payment, she complained about having to take a class about dinosaurs, and another class along the lines of “history of the universe from the Big Bang to sometime about a million years ago.” When you consider the interest on her student loans, she had to pay for these classes not just once, but once-plus-some. Neither of these classes were in French. They were the sorts of outside-your-major classes that exist solely so that students can, allegedly, become “well rounded.” (I’ll have more to say about so-called “well roundedness” in another post.)

My wife’s periodic complaint about having to pay for her dinosaurs class made me recall my own time at Washington University. One summer, I took a class in ancient and modern Japanese culture. Out of the list of courses that would satisfy that particular well-roundedness requirement, I’m not sure why I picked that class in particular. My father won a computer art contest in the early 1980s, and the prize was a family trip to Japan. I have fond memories of that trip; that might have contributed to my decision, but I’m not sure. I recall writing a term paper for the class, but I can’t recall what I wrote about. The professor told some interesting stories about this adventures in Japan, although I can’t remember any of them now. Relatively speaking, I suppose I enjoyed the class. The material was somewhat interesting, and at the time I probably would have defended having to take it as contributing to my “well roundedness.”

But almost two decades later, I realize it was a waste of everyone’s money and time.

It was a waste of my parent’s money. It was a waste of my time. And having spent the last decade as a professor, I now realize it was a waste of the professor’s time.

I’m not insisting that students shouldn’t be required to take any classes outside of their major department. I’m suggesting that for a “B.S.-bs,” the classes taken outside of the major should have some clear, direct relevance to the degree. For instance, engineers do require a certain amount of background in the sciences, particularly physics, and it’s also hard to do any kind of modern engineering without the aid of computer simulation, so some training in computation is essential. Looking in the other direction, I can find few legitimate arguments for requiring all students majoring in computer science to take chemistry, or even calculus, although I know I will be branded a heretic for saying so. One of the best Lecturers in our College of Computing almost didn’t make it through his undergraduate CS degree because of the calculus requirement. I sat in one of his classes, and can attest that he is an amazing teacher. It is easy to imagine an alternate universe in which he was unable to jump through the calculus hoop, and computer science students in that universe would never know his skill and passion for teaching.

My colleagues on curriculum committees – particularly those involved with ABET, the mother of all engineering curriculum committees – should remember that every class requirement represents a tremendous expense in time and money (and not just the time spent by the student). You need to have a rock-solid argument for each requirement. Your argument must be less wishy-washy than “it will help make them well rounded” and less cliche than “it will help teach them to think logically.” It must be less vain than “it’s a class I teach” or “it’s a topic I do research in.” It must be more forward-looking than “well, I was forced to take it when I was in school.” It must be more precise than “well, I took it when I was in school, and I remembered something from it that I threw into a grant proposal three years ago.” It has to be less pretentious than “aaaah! if we stop requiring this class, we’re lowering our standards!” You must to be able to argue that the class you are requiring is so vital, so essential, so irreplaceable, that a student should go deeper into debt – a particularly toxic kind of debt that is non-bankruptable – in order to take that class. Student loan debt is nearing a trillion dollars. I beg my fellow academics to think carefully about whether we are contributing to that unnecessarily.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. December 1, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Aaron,

    You appear to be mixing arguments about “Core Requirements” or “Basic&Breadth” classes that all students are required to take (e.g.: http://www.catalog.gatech.edu/students/ugrad/core/core.php ) with a call to action directed at the architects of specific degree programs. The course about Japanese culture you used as an example would appear to be a “Core Requirement” and not a part of your BS degrees.

    Are you arguing that a University Degree (TM) should not include some form of Core Requirements to help expose students to ideas they may not have considered as part of their “Degree” program?

    I also feel that your metaphor about a-la-cart surgery is misguided, as I prefer to think of the traditional university experience as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Most universities allow students to take as many classes as they can reasonably handle for the same “full time” price. (My undergraduate university forced students to get an advisor approval if they wanted to take more than 5 classes, but would allow one to take up to 7 classes at the same price as a nominal full load. Georgia Tech has the same tuition and fees for any number of semester credits above 6.)

    • December 6, 2011 at 12:34 am

      It’s true that the people in charge of the Core Requirements are often (maybe always?) different from the architects of each of the degree programs. That said, I don’t think that changing the target audience of the argument renders the point less valid. Exposure to new ideas is valuable, but Georgia Tech’s value proposition (as advertised to both students and parents) is that they more than any other university will put students into high-paying careers immediately after college. That requires functioning more as a trade school than as a general university; it’s much easier to put the skills on a resume that are directly applicable to your work, but how am I going to put “thinks about mental models differently thanks to our discussion of Saussere’s linguistics model we discussed in Modernism” on that resume?

      (On second thought, I want to try that now that I mention it. :-P)

      With regards to the argument that students can take as many classes as they can handle up to the full-time price: Georgia Tech charges a per credit rate up to 12 credits, not 6. And most Georgia Tech students are under so much stress from the work that they have to do each semester that they *only* take 12 credits, or as close as they can get to it, each semester. Add to that the fact that many students work to support themselves through college, and the buffet experience becomes an option only available to the lucky few. This is evidenced by the four-year-graduation rate of 31% (see: http://factbook.gatech.edu/content/graduationretention-rates); if students were taking 15+ credits each semester, they’d graduate in four years even without any incoming credits. And I don’t think the co-op program (which only 15-20% of students participate in) makes up the difference.

    • Joyce
      December 15, 2011 at 1:23 am

      The buffet analogy only applies if the restaurant is force-feeding you. And making you pay for it. And demanding that you admire the cooking.

      • December 15, 2011 at 5:55 am

        Joyce :
        The buffet analogy only applies if the restaurant is force-feeding you. And making you pay for it. And demanding that you admire the cooking.

        You can always leave a buffet for a different venue, they don’t force you to come back after each meal. If you don’t like the buffet you are at (too expensive, too spicy, etc) you can (and should) find one that meets your needs better. This does not mean that each buffet should cater to your needs. They only need to cater to the needs of enough patrons to keep them in business. Economics will guarantee that over time the various eating establishments serve the needs of the vast majority of the population.

      • Joyce
        December 15, 2011 at 3:56 pm

        Jay, I think it’s time to see the analogy mechanic, because this one is breaking down. Generally speaking, you don’t leave a restaurant saddled with thousands of dollars in debt.

        Furthermore, if I leave this buffet, where could I possibly go? We’re discussing a problem that is endemic to higher education. There is no university I can go to where I will be allowed to take only the courses pertaining to my major, plus whatever I’m interested in, and come out with a degree. Sure, I can take classes ad hoc all I want, but unless I’m checking boxes off the requirement list, I won’t come out with anything but a pile of debt.

      • December 15, 2011 at 4:07 pm

        Joyce :
        Jay, I think it’s time to see the analogy mechanic, because this one is breaking down.

        I agree, lets stop talking about buffets.

        Joyce :
        Furthermore, if I leave this buffet, where could I possibly go? We’re discussing a problem that is endemic to higher education. There is no university I can go to where I will be allowed to take only the courses pertaining to my major, plus whatever I’m interested in, and come out with a degree. Sure, I can take classes ad hoc all I want, but unless I’m checking boxes off the requirement list, I won’t come out with anything but a pile of debt.

        How about a trade school? It’s cheap(er), you (mostly) only take courses that directly apply to your chosen future career, and doesn’t include any of the “core requirements” BS. Don’t like school at all? Apprentice yourself to somebody (this is formally set up with plumbers, electricians, etc. but you can do it informally in many other areas) and learn what you want, paying for your training by being their assistant for X years. Or just go out into the world and learn directly as an entrepreneur. My point is that if you don’t like the University system with “accreditation” and “degrees” and all that BS, many other educational opportunities are available.

        True, many jobs “require” a certain degree….but even then you can pick up various degrees (accredited or not) from an online school (or a lower tier “real” school) much easier and with much less expense than going to Georgia Tech. People come to accredited/expensive Universities because they believe the value proposition is in their favor. I’m still paying off my college loans because I decided that getting a “College degree” was worth it.

      • Joyce
        December 15, 2011 at 4:35 pm

        “How about a trade school?”

        Hard to get a teaching certification at a trade school. Or a journalism degree. Or many other credentials that are required (or at least preferred) to go into a particular field that are nevertheless not the purview of trade schools.

        “you can pick up various degrees (accredited or not) from an online school”

        And do you seriously think employers will respect a degree from an unaccredited online school?

        “People come to accredited/expensive Universities because they believe the value proposition is in their favor.”

        Not true. People come to these universities because society, in the form of employers and graduate programs, believes that. In the case of GA Tech, it happens to be true. And that’s great. But to say to a Tech undergrad who can’t graduate because they’ve neglected the requirement to take one more random elective that they should quit whining and switch to a trade school is disingenuous.

  2. Gregory
    December 1, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Since you’re saving “well roundedness” for later, I’ll try to keep this narrow as well. And I’m certainly sympathetic to cautions about student debt, self-perpetuating curricula, and institutional inertia in general. But I would challenge what seems to be your primary conclusion, that degree programs should be smaller, more tightly focused, and monodisciplinary. You say you aren’t dispensing with all non-major requirements, so I won’t chase that (although by the examples you give you have strongly suggested that they’re mostly a “waste,” so I’m curious what criteria you would provide for when they might be worthwhile). But even within a major like engineering, you seem to call for whittling down instruction in feeder or related disciplines. So I’m wondering if that means, if one enters school thinking they want to be become a civil engineer, they should only be taught about large-load stresses and not electrical circuits? Should engineering be converted from an academic track to a tradecraft model in an effort to develop cheaper paths to civil engineering graduates? Perhaps that is precisely what is warranted, if that’s your goal. But I see two strong objections to that finessed approach.

    First, it presumes that the student is prepared and able to commit to a lifelong career path on declaring a major – that they will be a no-b.s. civil engineer for good, come what may. But engineering itself is precisely the kind of discipline that should fully intend to be adaptive, since advances in technology, materials science, etc. will rapidly alter the practice (my father’s degree in mechanical engineering certainly did not include any computer simulation). More urgently, declaring a major is not the same as choosing a career – oftentimes it is within the edges of a curriculum that a student finds their passion which they then pursue as a life’s work. Your wife might have started as a French student but become a cosmologist, just as you might have developed a fascination with the Tokugawa shogunate that led to becoming a curator. The examples I would give are of close friends from college that did not end where they began: one enrolled as pre-med, and is now a movie special effects supervisor; another was a gifted art major who won a prestigious award for her painting, and now develops alternate catalysts for fuel cells. Both changed directions based on unplanned experiences they had in classes. And my career is based on a student job I took as part of my scholarship. So, limiting exposure can be cheaper, but it can also make one poorer in outcome.

    The second objection is that in professional practice, many disciplines – especially the hard sciences – suffer from already being *over*specialized. This is another symptom of the same problem you cite, actually: status quo entrenchment means each subgroup defends its borders. And that means that some effort across fields is duplicative, as the specific finding gets trapped within its specialty. But with a global economy increasingly driven by innovation, cross-fertilization and interdisciplinary efforts show a much greater yield for progress. Look at MIT’s Media Lab and artists-in-residence, outposts like the Santa Fe Institute, new fields of study like biomimicry, and the entire business incubator model. Education is more than indoctrination, it is introduction, exposure, challenge, and comparison. And it’s only with perfect hindsight that we can say that the dinosaur class was a waste, and not the beginning of a life’s calling.

    • December 6, 2011 at 12:13 am

      I think there’s a strong assumption in your post that all of the classes Georgia Tech teaches are of equal value; unfortunately, that’s not the case. My English 2 class covered such collegiate-level reading as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine; both excellent books to read in fourth grade and worth revisiting in early high school, with no place in a collegiate course of any level. For all its strengths as an engineering and science school, Georgia Tech has no quality guarantees on classes outside of its core competences. Certainly I had better classes than the one I described (such as a particularly well-taught class on Modernism), but the core Technical Writing class was a complete waste of everyone’s time. Yes, there is something to be said for serendipity in the college experience, but there’s also plenty of chaff that most if not all students would be glad to be rid of.

      Also, I would be stunned if the changes in major your friends underwent were something they had *no* interest in to start with. Assuming such an interest existed, they had the opportunity to take the class with some of their Free Elective credits, or actually take the class because they wanted to as an audit, without worrying about the grade. As long as you can take classes in other disciplines, the “richer experience” you defend will always be available. Using “perfect hindsight” as the basis of judgment is ultimately an ineffective argument; the best you can say is “some good could come out of this”, but for the exact same reasons I can say “some bad could come out of this”. Let’s try to do our best in the here and now to make these decisions before 20 years go by.

    • Joyce
      December 15, 2011 at 1:37 am

      You say, “it presumes that the student is prepared and able to commit to a lifelong career path on declaring a major– that they will be a no-b.s. civil engineer for good, come what may.”

      It presumes nothing of the sort. It merely presumes that the student is interested in a civil engineer, and wants to study things related to civil engineering. If, in the course of those studies, our hypothetical student gets bored, or something else catches her eye, then she should feel free to explore other options, but until she makes that decision, let her study civil engineering.

      Most people *don’t* stay in the same career all their lives, of course. Ms. Civil Engineering may get her no-b.s. degree, work in her field for a few years, and then decide she should have been a paleontologist. Lucky for her, she yawned through a core requirement class in dinosaurs as an undergrad! Great, all set, she’s ready to go dig, right? Or maybe she needs to go back to school and retrain for a new field.

      Why this insistence that an undergraduate degree should somehow try to be all things to all students? It can’t. And it’s doing a really bad job of trying.

    • Joyce
      December 15, 2011 at 1:39 am

      Also, Greg, if you had known me at the time, you would have known there was no chance in hell of me ever becoming a cosmologist. Hindsight schmindsight.

  3. December 2, 2011 at 11:25 am

    There are precedents for the “BS-bs”. My local community college offers “certificates” with just the useful classes someone wants to take to learn a subject. If you want to turn that into an associate’s degree you add five more classes (writing, speech, math, civics, and humanities). I suspect they only add that to the AA because someone wanting to go on to a BA needs to have a start on the “distribution” requirements.

    What probably freaks a lot of your colleagues is the suspicion that in some majors the “BA-bs” equals zero.

    • December 2, 2011 at 12:06 pm

      Karl wrote: “What probably freaks a lot of your colleagues is the suspicion that in some majors the “BA-bs” equals zero.” I think there’s a *lot* of that percolating under the surface. I’ve even see people say things along the lines of “the purpose of these requirements is to force students to see the value of these fields.” Whippings will continue until appreciation improves. 😉

      That said, I probably value the humanities and social sciences more than many of my engineering colleagues do, and probably more than some of the people complaining about my post think. I do believe that fields of study should be able to stand on their own merit. They should be able to attract students on their own, and not require subsidies in the form of warm bodies. I’ll have more to say about that another time.

  4. December 6, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Stephen Hilber :
    That requires functioning more as a trade school than as a general university;

    Yes, it does, and I think that many more students should be going to trade schools instead of Universities. If you want to learn a trade, why add on the “b.s.” of a “core requirement”. However, we already have successful trade schools, and I don’t think Universities are doing themselves any favors by trying to edge into that market.

    Most Georgia Tech students are under so much stress from the work that they have to do each semester that they *only* take 12 credits, or as close as they can get to it, each semester. Add to that the fact that many students work to support themselves through college, and the buffet experience becomes an option only available to the lucky few.

    This is true, due mostly to the fact that Georgia Tech is a demanding school because we are top ranked. (Or are we top ranked because we are demanding? Causation/causality….).

    But, if you are a truly excellent student, you can double major in 4 years and get great value for your money. (If Georgia Tech’s $10 all you can eat spicy buffet causes you indigestion, you can always move to the $5 special at the Piccadilly cafeteria…other options exist at different price points and at different levels of academic rigor. )

    • December 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm

      I do agree with you that there’s a compelling case to be made for encouraging more students to go to trade school, since by all measurements the vast majority of students just want to enter the workforce and get paid more than they would normally (78%, I think; I’ll have to dig up that survey). And as for university being an excellent deal for the best students, I imagine that the best students are reasonably likely to get the most merit-based scholarship money. Nothing beats a price of free.

      Going back to Aaron’s original point, however, I feel that the whole concept of “B.S.-bs” is centered around the value-add. What extra value does each miscellaneous elective add to the individual student? I don’t think anybody has any information on that subject, so asking for specific justifications for why a course should be in the curriculum seems to be as good a plan as any. I’m certainly not opposed to the concept of a liberal arts education, but where’s the evidence that it actually creates more well-rounded students – and that such students are more valuable? If I created a hypothetical “North Avenue Trade School” that teaches all the same science/engineering majors with none of the liberal arts offerings of Tech, what’s the specific value-add that Tech offers? When in my career or personal life do I benefit from the increased cost of the full liberal arts education?

      That’s what I’m curious about.

      • B.Curtis
        December 16, 2011 at 4:00 pm

        Stephen , I’m coming to this party late, however I have been through an apprenticeship program, and have an A.S. in computer science. Having been through both, there is room to prune a degree without turning it into a trade. The trade school ( and many for profit certifications ) are centered around practical applications and the usage in the field. An example is bending conduit in electrical training. Even though trigonometric functions are necessary, it’s given as a rote formula, never explained. This, along with the hands on training is the difference. Would a semester on a jobsight benefit most architects and engineers? Absolutely it would, but that will never happen.

  5. December 8, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    I left a grumpier response over at Mark’s place.

    I’ll just note that this is basically how the UK undergraduate degree is organized. You “pick your major” before you go (i.e., apply to a school), and you take all your classes from e.g., the CS school. It’s pretty hard to change paths. It takes 3 years. You can then do a 1 year MSc. And even a 3 year PhD. You can, theoretically, go from pre-undergrad to doctorate in 6 years.

    Really doesn’t happen that way all that often…

    But anyway, given the fact of the system, you can just observe, rather than speculate, how it works out.

    • December 9, 2011 at 12:28 am

      As I mentioned over there too, I need to research that more. If they can do something equivalent to one of Georgia Tech’s 4-year undergraduate engineering degrees (which take many students longer, actually) in 3 years, I’ll be very very impressed. The prereq chains in our program pretty much set a lower bound of 4 years.

  6. Scott
    December 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    That broadening should happen BEFORE they even GET to college , or even if they NEVER DO.. *CITIZENS* should be exposed to enough history and science that they can tell what constitutes proof, and reasonable arguments.. and when someone is just flatly rewriting the past..or trying to con them with scientific or economist Bull crap by the truckload.. but we clearly arent doing THAT with any of these so called ‘electives’ Let alone the level at which it belongs.. HIgh School. You cant really fix higher education without fixing LOWER education first and it makes more sense to handle this .. much more universally and usefully at that level.. on the public tab.. for everyone. What Aaron says about requirements is deadly true… every un-needed requirement can weed out a genius in THAT field who just doesnt want to/cant jump that spurious hoop.. and every extra class is MONEY that .. back in the day.. we could SORT OF handle by taking part time jobs and working summers.. NOW its just out of control ridiculous and I dont think the salaries, facilities or VALUE have increased all that much so WHERE IS ALL THAT MONEY GOING? and why SHOULD a good school be a time driven pressure cooker to fail students? what if it takes six years to get a BS in engineering and three in history? (and this is a historian speaking) why not do it well, do it CHEAPER and let it take as long as it takes?

  1. December 1, 2011 at 8:30 am
  2. December 2, 2011 at 2:10 am
  3. December 6, 2011 at 1:33 am
  4. December 6, 2011 at 3:44 am
  5. December 7, 2011 at 10:24 am

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