Universities Try Three-Year Degrees To Save Students Time, Money

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2024/06/14/universities-try-three-year-degrees-to-save-students-time-money/

By Elaine S. Povich

With college costs rising and some students and families questioning the return on investment of a four-year degree, a few pioneering state universities are exploring programs that would grant certain bachelor’s degrees in three years.

The programs, which also are being tried at some private schools, would require 90 credits instead of the traditional 120 for a bachelor’s degree, and wouldn’t require summer classes or studying over breaks. In some cases, the degrees would be designed to fit industry needs.

Indiana recently enacted legislation calling for all state universities there to offer by next year at least one bachelor’s degree program that could be completed in three years, and to look into whether more could be implemented. The Utah System of Higher Education has tasked state universities with developing three-year programs under a new Bachelor of Applied Studies degree, which would still need approval by accreditation boards.

More than a dozen public and private universities are participating in a pilot collaboration called the College-in-3 Exchange, to begin considering how they could offer three-year programs. The public universities include the College of New Jersey, Portland State University, Southern Utah University, the Universities of Minnesota at Rochester and at Morris, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and Utah Tech University.

Proponents of the three-year degree programs say they save students money and set them on a faster track to their working life. But detractors, including some faculty, say they shortchange students, particularly if they later change their minds on what career path they want to follow.

The Utah Board of Higher Education in March approved the new three-year degree category. Various areas of study would be tied to specific industry needs, with fewer electives required. These degrees are broader than two-year associate degrees, but narrower than a full four-year bachelor’s.

“We told the institutions to start working on them now and developing the curriculum,” Geoff Landward, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, said in an interview. “Also, we want them to find industry partners that would be willing to hire people with bachelor’s degrees of this type.”

He added: “We created a sandbox for our institutions to play in.”

Once created, individual programs would need both national accreditation and state Board of Higher Education approval.

Landward said he has taken note of criticism that the three-year programs might “cheapen” the bachelor’s degree by shortchanging students who wouldn’t receive a broad college education. But he said students could save on tuition, get a head start in the workforce, and meet the needs of industries that are looking for certain skilled workers to address shortages in the state.

That includes nursing, he said, where requiring a four-year degree means taking lots of electives that have nothing to do with the career.

Utah State University’s current four-year nursing program, for example, suggests several electives along with the required anatomy, math, and biology courses as prerequisites during freshman and sophomore years.

“We think if we are partnering with industry and they help us develop it, I don’t think it cheapens the degree,” Landward said. “I think it creates a very specific degree.”

Robert Zemsky, a University of Pennsylvania professor and founding director of the university’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, began proselytizing for the three-year college movement about a dozen years ago.

He said the idea has gotten traction recently because “we are wading in the deep waters of righteous anger” at colleges and universities because of the perception that four-year degrees are not worth their high costs.

A Pew Research Center survey released in May found only 1 in 4 American adults said it is extremely or very important to have a four-year college degree as a means to getting a good-paying job. Only 22 percent of the respondents said the cost is worth getting a four-year degree even if the student or the student’s family has to take out loans.

Zemsky suggested that a shorter time span also would lead to higher college completion rates. More than a third of students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree in fall 2014 at a four-year school failed to complete their education at the same institution in six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Zemsky said 27 colleges and universities have embarked on creating three-year pilot programs and predicted 100 would be doing so in another year.

Over the past 10 years, Zemsky said, schools have been ignoring the desires of students and instead creating their curricula around the preferences of faculty — which is where most of the opposition is coming from.

Last year, at a conference of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, a bargaining unit for professors, President Kenneth Mash said the overwhelming number of college faculty nationwide “have a visceral disdain for the idea.”

In an interview with Stateline, he said three-year programs would hurt students too, creating a “two-tiered” system under which wealthy students would get a full four-year education and lower-income students a cheapened three-year degree.

“If it’s not going to be a four-year degree, they should name it something that indicates it’s not a B.A.,” said Mash, who also is a political science professor at East Stroudsburg University. “We don’t know that employers will treat them the same.”

“I’m on board, as most faculty are, with the notion that people want to increase their job opportunities. But that’s not all there is to a college degree,” he said. “Degrees prepare you to be a better citizen, a better parent, and on and on.”

And he said a broad education is what makes it possible for students to change jobs and careers many times during their working lives. “It’s really that baking in liberal arts … that makes it possible for people to do different things in their lifetimes.”


Indiana’s New Law

Indiana enacted a law in March that requires each public institution that offers bachelor’s degrees to review all the four-year degrees with an eye toward making some of them three years. And the law requires that by July 1, 2025, each state university offer at least one bachelor’s degree that can be completed in three years.

Indiana state Senator Jean Leising, a Republican who sponsored the measure, pointed out that every extra year of college costs the students, their parents, and the state.

But she noted that not all degrees lend themselves to compressed curricula. “If you’ve got a kid in pharmacy [studies], they are not going to be able to get through it in three years. Engineers aren’t going to be able to do it in three years. But some of the other kids will.”

Chris Lowery, Indiana’s commissioner for higher education, said the law will encourage schools to think about how to create 90-credit-hour bachelor’s degrees:  “How feasible is this, would you still have the quality, would you still have the agency?”

Three-year degrees allow for choice, he added. His daughter, for example, had enough Advanced Placement credits after high school to make a college degree feasible in three years, but opted to go to school for four, because she wanted to have enough time to study so that she could get “straight As” as well as to have time for extracurricular activities.

“But for a lot of students, the finances are tighter,” he acknowledged.


Credentialing Requirements

At both public and private universities, the new three-year degree programs that require fewer credits would need national accreditation.

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, a regional credentialing agency, accredited several three-year bachelor’s degrees at two private schools, Brigham Young University-Idaho and Ensign College, last year. The degrees are in applied business management, family and human services, software development, applied health, and professional studies.

Sonny Ramaswamy, the commission’s president, said in an interview that the three-year programs underwent two years of evaluation before being awarded accreditation.

He said the evaluation showed that competency in many professions could be attained in three years instead of four, and that graduate schools were willing to accept three-year bachelor’s degrees as a credential for the pursuit of higher degrees. He noted that European college degrees often are completed in three years.

“We said, ‘We will approve you, but this is a pilot,’ ” Ramaswamy said. The schools will provide data to show their students have earned a good education, he added.

“My intuition is that it will head in the right direction,” he said. “The public is calling for innovation.”

Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit organization that says its mission is promoting academic freedom, excellence and accountability at colleges and universities, said “fluff” courses strengthen the case against a 120-credit-hour bachelor’s degree.

“Let people get a good foundation with a strong general education core, strong skills, and some electives,” Poliakoff said in an interview. “That’s what a responsible university should be doing.”

The council does an annual survey of higher education institutions and grades them A through F on what the group calls “core curricula” — the proportion of courses dedicated to mathematics, literature, composition, economics, laboratory science, American history and government, and foreign languages.

Poliakoff said the amount of debt students are accumulating over four years is “sinful” and unnecessary. Colleges and universities must meet the concerns of students and their families, he said.

“A 90-credit baccalaureate degree is a pretty good way to tighten up the bolts,” he said.


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