Universities are trying to offer three-year degrees to save students time and money. • Alabama Reflector

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

The programs, also being piloted at some private schools, would require 90 credits instead of the traditional 120 for a bachelor’s degree, and would not require summer classes or studying during breaks. In some cases, the degrees would be designed to meet industry needs.

Indiana recently passed legislation calling on all state universities there to offer at least one bachelor’s degree next year that can be completed in three years, and explore implementing more. The Utah System of Higher Education has tasked state universities with developing three-year programs under a new Bachelor of Applied Studies degree, which still needs approval from accreditation boards.

More than a dozen public and private universities are participating in a pilot collaboration called the College-in-3 Exchange to consider how they can 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.

Supporters of the three-year courses say they save students money and help them get started in their working lives more quickly. But opponents, including some educators, say they shortchange students, especially if they later change their minds about which career path they want to pursue.

We think that if we work with industry and they help us develop it, I don’t think it makes the degree cheaper. I think it creates a very specific level.

– Geoff Landward, Commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education

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

“We told the institutions that they need to start working on it now and start developing the curriculum,” Geoff Landward, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, said in an interview. “We also want them to find industry partners who are willing to hire people with these types of bachelor’s degrees.”

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

Once created, individual programs would require both national accreditation and approval from the National Board of Higher Education.

Landward said he has noted criticism that the three-year programs could make bachelor’s degrees “cheaper” by shortchanging students who would not receive a broad college education. But he said students can save on tuition, get an edge in the job market and meet the needs of industries looking for certain skilled workers to address the state’s shortages.

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

For example, Utah State University’s current four-year nursing program suggests several electives, along with required anatomy, math, and biology courses as prerequisites during freshmen and sophomores.

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

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

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

A Pew Research Center survey released last week found that only 1 in 4 American adults consider it extremely or very important to have a four-year college degree as a means of getting a high-paying job . Only 22% of respondents said the cost is worth it to earn a four-year degree, even if the student or their family has to take out loans.

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

Zemsky said 27 colleges and universities have begun setting up three-year pilot programs and predicted 100 would do so within a year.

Over the past decade, Zemsky says, schools have ignored students’ wishes and instead built their curricula around teacher preferences — and that’s where most of the opposition comes from.

Last year, President Kenneth Mash said at a conference of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, a bargaining unit for professors, that the overwhelming number of college faculty across the country have “a deep-seated contempt for the idea.”

In an interview with Stateline, he said three-year programs would also hurt students, creating a two-tier system where wealthy students would get a full four-year degree and lower-income students would get a cheaper three-year degree.

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

“I, like most teachers, agree with the idea that people want to increase their chances of finding a job. But that’s not all a college degree has to offer,” he said. “A degree prepares you to be a better citizen, a better parent, and so on.”

And he said a broad education allows students to change jobs and careers frequently during their working lives. “It’s really that baking in the liberal arts… that allows people to do different things in their lives.”

Indiana’s new law

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

Indiana Sen. Jean Leising, a Republican who sponsored the measure, pointed out that each additional year of college comes at a cost to students, their parents and the state.

But she noted that not all degrees lend themselves to compact curricula. “If you have a kid (studying) pharmacy, they’re not going to be able to get through it in three years. Engineers won’t be able to do this in three years. But some other kids do.”

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

Three-year degrees allow freedom of choice, he added. For example, his daughter had enough AP credits after high school to make a college degree attainable in three years, but chose to go to school for four years because she wanted to have enough time to study so she could get “straight As.” could get. and to have time for extracurricular activities.

“But finances are tighter for many students,” he acknowledged.

Credentialing Requirements

At both public and private universities, the new three-year courses, which require fewer credits, would require national accreditation.

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

Sonny Ramaswamy, chairman of the committee, said in an interview that the three-year programs were evaluated for two years before being accredited.

He said the review found that competency in many professions can be achieved in three years rather than four years, and that graduate schools are willing to accept a three-year bachelor’s degree as a credential for pursuing advanced degrees. He noted that European university courses are often completed in three years.

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

“My intuition is that things are going 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 that says its mission is to promote academic freedom, excellence and responsibility at colleges and universities, said “fluff” courses undermine the arguments against a bachelor’s degree from Reinforce 120 credits.

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

The council annually surveys institutions of higher education and grades them from A to F based on what the group calls “core curricula” — the share of courses devoted to math, literature, composition, economics, laboratory science, American history and government, and foreign languages.

Poliakoff said the amount of debt students accumulate in four years is “sinful” and unnecessary. Colleges and universities must address the concerns of students and their families, he said.

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

State border is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. If you have any questions, please contact editor Scott S. Greenberger: (email protected). Follow Stateline on Facebook and Tweet.

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