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Colleges assess three-year degree programs

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Like many high schoolers, Grant Austin R. Simms was bombarded with college marketing materials showing euphoric students enjoying athletics, after-school clubs and campus life.

What he really wanted to know was how long his degree would take and how much it would cost.

“What’s missing when people talk to high school students about college is the reality of it — the financial aspect,” Simms said. “Nobody talks about it.”

Simms was speaking in the light-filled but otherwise empty classroom-sized space in a coworking building in downtown DC that will house an expected 50-70 members of NewU University’s inaugural class in August. , where he finally decided to enroll .

A brand new rare nonprofit university, NewU has a relatively low annual fee of $16,500 that is locked in for a student’s entire education.

But the feature that seems to be winning over applicants is that NewU will offer three-year bachelor’s degrees instead of the usual four.

“Consumers are definitely ready for something different,” said Startup College President Stratsi Kulinski.

A handful of conventional colleges and universities come to the same conclusion. Several add three-year degrees as students and families grow frustrated after more than four years it is now required that most of those who obtain a bachelor’s degree complete — and the resulting additional cost.

“There is absolutely market pressure for a more effective program,” said Mike Goldstein, chief executive of education consultancy Tyton Partners..

This isn’t the first time three-year degrees have been trending. The topic last came to public attention a decade ago, when legislatures in Washington state and elsewhere ordered public universities to expand some of them to reduce fees. of schooling.

But it didn’t really take. Professors didn’t like the idea of ​​rushing things, and students resisted filling their schedules so packed that they’d miss out on the other experiences described in those marketing brochures.

The momentum now seems to be returning.

Thirteen colleges and universities have agreed to consider three-year degrees in at least some majors under a program called College in 3, pushed by University of Minnesota Rochester chancellor Lori Carrell and Robert Zemsky. , founding director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education. at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and a longtime proponent of three-year degrees.

These include Utica College, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Merrimack College, New England College, Portland State University, Slippery Rock University, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

Other institutions are launching three-year degrees this fall, often combined with graduate studies so students can earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the four years it traditionally takes to earn just a bachelor’s degree.

Some of the renewed interest, these institutions say, is a response to a pandemic-induced sense of impatience among students, parents and employers.

“There’s a growing number of students who want to graduate and get into the working world very quickly,” said Brian Reed, associate vice provost at the University of Montana, which allows students get a bachelor’s degree in three years in disciplines such as psychology, marketing and entrepreneurship.

Other universities see three-year degrees as a way to compete in the fight for the dwindling number of students, including those who are drawn to faster training programs such as coding schools, or who challenge question the need to go to university. More than a third of Americans without a degree don’t believe that additional training would help them find a job, according to a survey by the Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights. This is almost triple the proportion before the pandemic.

Falling college enrollment sparks recruitment rush

“These are existential challenges to traditional brick-and-mortar education,” said Kristin Tichenor, vice president of enrollment at Wentworth Institute of Technology, which has rolled out three-year bachelor’s degrees in applied mathematics and computing.

Offering accelerated combined bachelor’s and master’s degrees also helps prevent undergraduates from leaving for graduate studies; those who remain provide essential income to universities.

Three-year degrees may attract another important market for US universities: international students are lost to competing countries where bachelor’s degrees are already three years long instead of four.

“It’s a three-year-old model that’s automatically a quarter cheaper,” Goldstein said.

American students, too, are heading to these foreign universities. Last year, nearly 51,000 were pursuing full degrees at universities abroad, the vast majority in Europe, according to the Institute of International Education.

Meanwhile, the growing number of college credits earned by American high school students through Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment courses is giving many of them a head start in earning a bachelor’s degree faster.

Already, 12% of full-time students in the private sector and 10% of full-time students in public universities and colleges complete four-year degrees in three yearsaccording to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“I know exactly what I want to do when I graduate. So graduating early will save me a ton of money,” said Leah Easton, 20, who is on track to complete her degree at Utica in 3½ years.

However, barriers remain to the expansion of three-year degree programs. Students worry about missing the fun parts of college, for example.

Professors also fear such a change would “depreciate the degree,” Zemsky said.

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This is so sensitive that one of the institutions participating in the Collège en 3 project has asked the others not to identify it publicly. The faculty of another balked at creating three-year degrees in the core disciplines of English, history, philosophy, and political science.

Less hidden institutions, such as Wentworth, which started as a trade school and only issued bachelor’s degrees in 1970 and master’s degrees until 2009, are better equipped to try these kinds of changes, said Tichenor.

In higher education, “there are often very good ideas that never come to fruition because of the inertia that we know and love in academy,” she said.

The biggest challenge is how to meet the requirements of a bachelor’s degree designed to last four years in three.

Most three-year degree programs simply try to squeeze the usual 120 credits into three years, which means students must take additional courses each semester and often more during the summers. This is the model of Wentworth and the University of Montana.

“There are days I’m going to go sleepless,” said Alyssa Russette, who at 27 is trying to complete a three-year bachelor’s degree in Montana while working and raising a 4-year-old son. “Caffeine is a great motivator.”

NewU is trying a different approach: extending semesters to 18 weeks so students get four instead of three credits per course. They will take fewer courses but cover more content in each, said Kulinski, a former president of the American University in Bulgaria who also worked as an executive at TiVo.

Zemsky and his colleagues are proposing something even more radical: that students be allowed to graduate with 90 credits instead of the traditional 120. This will require buy-in from regulators, accreditors, and graduate admissions offices.

Policy makers say they sense a mood for reform.

The many challenges of higher education make it “a time to talk things over,” Zemsky said.

Questions remain about who would benefit from three-year degrees—first-generation, low-income students often locked in by the cost and length of a college education, or those in well-endowed private or suburban public high schools that offer a PA of college level and dual-enrollment credits.

“The three-year degree movement may not help the populations we want to help,” said Randy Bass, vice president of strategic education initiatives at Georgetown University.

At the Georgetown Research and Development Lab, Bass is also thinking about how universities can plan degree paths that confer combined bachelor’s and master’s degrees more quickly.

“The pandemic, the move to the internet, has been such a drastic experience that it’s forced everyone to rethink time and the value proposition,” Bass said, surrounded by walls of whiteboards and tables he was sitting on. doodles questions and ideas.

For him, the sweet spot would be to lower the bachelor’s degree requirement to 108 credits over three years – 15 per semester, plus six each summer earned through internships or work experience.

Either way, advocates hope the renewed activity around three-year degrees will lead to wider acceptance of them.

Grant Austin Simms is not waiting. He is awaiting his high school diploma three years after starting school at NewU in the fall and doesn’t care that there are no dorms, athletics, or college parties.

“My goal,” he said, “is education.”

This story about three-year degrees was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to our higher education newsletter.