Thursday, February 26, 2009

Buzz and Spin on 3-Year Degrees for colleges. I want 5 year as option for HS kids

I've been buzzing about the creation of a 13th year option for Pittsburgh Public Schools as a new program so as to insure have a better chance of life-long success for many reasons. We need to get more of our kids to finish high school. We need to get more of our kids accepted into colleges. We need to get more of our kids to stay in college once they get there, rather than flunking out. Too few of our kids go to college and too many, once they get there, flunk out.

This push for a 13th year option at the I.B. Jr./Sr. High is easy to do. Furthermore, it is more pressing as the trend for colleges and universities is to condense the undergraduate years from four to three.

Check out this article below from Inside Higher Ed.
When U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander spoke this month at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, he urged college leaders to offer three-year bachelor's degrees. The concept would cut "one fourth of the time and up to one third of the cost," he said, calling three-year degrees the “higher ed equivalent of a fuel-efficient car,” compared to the traditional “gas guzzling four-year course." Alexander is a Republican with both political and academic experience (he is former president of the University of Tennessee). At another session at the meeting, Richard Celeste said he was interested in the idea of three-year degrees. Celeste, a former Democratic governor of Ohio, is president of Colorado College.

Alexander and Celeste are not alone in their consideration of the idea. Richard Vedder, a Spellings Commission alumnus who leads the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is among the higher ed critics who have embraced the notion of the three-year degree. In a blog posting, he noted that Thomas Jefferson's two-year program at the College of William and Mary didn't stunt his intellectual growth. "Today, undergraduates seldom finish before 22, and Ph.D.'s seldom receive their degree before the age of 27 or 28.

Colleges have been able to get away with keeping productive resources under their control for longer and longer periods (collecting tuition all the while), despite no demonstrated evidence that this has sizable positive learning effects," he wrote.

Moving away from four-year degrees has been encouraged by Wick Sloane, one of this Web site's columnists. Also endorsing the idea is the late George Keller, who led the University of Pennsylvania program for the study of higher education and who died in 2007, but not before finishing the essays that make up Higher Education and the New Society, published last year by Johns Hopkins University Press. In the volume, he made the case for three-year degrees by noting that many students today are more likely to enter college with Advanced Placement credit and to leave with plans for graduate school, somewhat minimizing the need for "depth" in undergraduate programs. Further, he said that the best model to be pushing now -- in light of rising college prices and the proliferation of knowledge -- is one in which college is three years but more emphasis is placed on lifelong learning.
Bingo! AP credit is much like IB credit. The AP is a 'brand' just as IB is another 'brand' for extra credit that comes at the high school level. Most of the PPS students who would enter the 13th year option at the IB High would have few AP classes. This IB experience would give them an opportunity to have a leg up while in Pittsburgh so as to be able to compete with their college mates once they arrive on campus.

Colleges and universities have an "apparent intransigence" on the issue, he wrote, despite three-year degrees being "a no-brainer."

Are they really a no-brainer?

In fact such a plan has been proposed previously -- and tried in several cases. The idea has also flopped more than it has taken off. Some in higher education believe that circumstances may be right for the idea now, despite previous failures. And one new experiment -- at Manchester College -- appears to be off to a good start. But educators there say that the idea makes sense only for a relatively small subset of students. Still others worry about the rigor or actual cost savings of three year programs.

Until recently, the biggest flurry of attention for the three-year degree came in the early 1990s, when S. Frederick Starr, then the president of Oberlin College, proposed it as a way to deal with college costs. He was widely praised by politicians and pundits for floating the idea. Starr argued that it would save money, and that students would embrace it. Because Starr spoke frequently about the issue, some people assume that the college actually acted on the idea.

In fact, the Oberlin faculty was decidedly unimpressed. One professor wrote a letter to The New York Times in 1993 to be sure everyone understood: "Lest readers be misled by the news media offensive of S. Frederick Starr ... Oberlin College does not offer a three-year degree. It does not plan to do so, and it does not advocate students trying to finish college in three years. Indeed, even in the midst of a broad strategic planning process initiated by Mr. Starr, we are not discussing such a possibility. The idea seems to be only on Mr. Starr's personal agenda. Perhaps he will pursue it when he leaves Oberlin next June."

Humm. The 13th year option for PPS is now turning into a 'personal agenda' for me.

A missing element in this 3 year for undergraduate discussion is the direct to medical school / pharmacy school / PT school options. There are some programs that give kids a chance to enter college on a fast track and have automatic admit to medical school too. So, rather than taking a 4 year degree in "pre med" and then three years in medical school, they do a six year program instead.

Does Duquesne (for physical thearapy) and Pitt (for pharmacy) offer accelerate programs so as to shorten the required undergrad years? More research needed.

And, if they do exist locally (at Pitt and DU), how many of the students that graduate from the typical PPS High Schools would gain admittance to those programs?

Student Interest That Didn't Materialize

Albertus Magnus College, in Connecticut, tried a three-year program for several years in the 1990s, by going from a semester to trimester system, with the idea that students could take courses year round and graduate in three years. The program was halted after most students started skipping a semester a year and very few took advantage of the possibility of graduating in three years.

Upper Iowa University some years ago created a three-year option that remains on the books there. But Linc Morris, vice president of enrollment management, said that no students are currently enrolled in the program and that he doesn't think anyone has tried it for at least three years. Upper Iowa operates on a quarter system in which students typically take two courses a quarter, but spend more time on each course than would be the norm elsewhere. The accelerated option was based on the assumption that some students would be able to get out in three years by adding courses during quarters and taking summer courses.

Because the university charges tuition by credits, students finishing in three years would not have saved money on tuition. But they would have avoided room and board for one year, as well as fees, which are charged by the quarter.

Records at the university show that five students enrolled in the program one year, but that none finished their degrees in three years.

National data suggest that the Upper Iowa and Albertus Magnus students weren't unusual. For example, many proponents of three-year degrees say that the growth of AP programs should make early graduation easy, since more students enter college with college credit. But the College Board has no data to show a correlation between taking AP courses and finishing early. In fact, College Board officials tend to talk about AP these days as a tool to encourage students to graduate on time (four years), not early. Data that the College Board do have show that students who take AP courses have a higher four-year graduation rate than the student body at large. Still, of those who have taken AP courses, only 63 percent graduate within four years, with the rest taking longer or dropping out.

'Fast Forward' at Manchester

Manchester College, in Indiana, is in the first year of a three-year option for students -- billed as a way to save students money and allow them to start earning salaries a year ahead of schedule. Under the Fast Forward program, selected students who are admitted to the college are given the option of acceleration. These students must take an average of 16 credits a semester (the normal range is 12-16) and take their general education courses online over the summer to finish in three years. Manchester estimates that students can save a total of $25,000 in the program, assuming that they live rent-free at home during the summers. The savings come both from room and board costs for the year they skip, and slightly lower tuition rates that the college charges for summer courses compared to those offered in the academic year.

The college notes that the financial gain can be much more, however, if students land a job a year earlier than they would otherwise.

Fourteen students -- about 4 percent of the freshman class -- are in the program. David F. McFadden, executive vice president at Manchester, said the college is pleased with the response and doesn't anticipate the program ever becoming standard for everyone. Because students must apply to the college for four years -- and then be identified as having potential for Fast Forward -- the college has a lot of control over who receives the opportunity. McFadden said that the ideal students not only are well prepared and disciplined academically, but generally need to have a good sense of their college goals coming in.

For some majors, he said, requirements are such that students need to be taking specific courses from their first semester at the campus. "They really need to know what their majors are going to be," he said.

McFadden said that some of those attending information sessions for potential applicants at Manchester this year said that they were attracted by the program. But he said that he thinks the college's approach of offering the three-year option only after acceptance is a good one for identifying the right students. "Not that many students think about this in a concrete enough way to come to college saying 'This is what I want to do,' " he said.

The students in the program have "very specific interests," and they did well academically in their first semester. He stressed that Manchester still believes that, for many students, colleges is "a place to come and know more of what's possible," and four years may be quite appropriate for that quest.

McFadden said students in the three-year program may also gain something because of the need to work closely with professors on planning their course selections with precision. He said he had just spoken with a student at another college who had been on track to graduate in four years, but who had missed some requirements for his major, and had quickly seen a four-year degree become a five-year degree, and that extra year was going to add significantly to the student's debt. A three-year program, McFadden said, "allows fewer missteps" than a four-year degree, and will force students to be "more focused and deliberate." As a result, he said he thinks people starting three-year programs and following appropriate advice may end up with higher completion rates than those who plan to finish in four.

Mercedes Plummer, who is in the first year of the Manchester program, is working toward an education degree so she can teach physical education and become a coach for elementary or middle school children. She said that since has a specific education and career goal, she isn't worried about the focus. Saving money was the attraction of the program, she said. She'll borrow modestly to pay for the three years of costs. But the $25,000 she's saving would all have been additional loans that she will now avoid.

Because the summer learning is online and asynchronous, Plummer said that it will not force her to miss everything she would have done during the summer -- she plans to hold a part-time job. "I don't have to stay on campus," she said. While some of her friends question her choice, saying she'll miss the "experience" of four years of college, Plummer said that graduating with less debt is plenty of compensation for that. "I know what I want to do," she said.

At Manchester, and most of the programs attempted to date, colleges have clung to 120 credits (the standard for a bachelor's degree) and sought ways for students to reach that level in three years. Some educators think that the 120 figure should be a little less sacred, and that this will lead to programs that can be completed in less than four years.

Leslie E. Wong, president of Northern Michigan University, said he believes that some college degrees could be earned in as few as 100 credits -- if well chosen -- rather than 120 credits. In such cases, he said, colleges would need to make general education "more focused" than is typically the case today. Further, he questioned whether colleges hesitate to award full credit for intense educational experiences, such as study abroad. "If someone goes away for two semesters, why don't we give extra credits, given that good study abroad is so powerful an experience?" he said.

The idea is not just to shorten education, Wong said, but to make college completion more realistic for those with limited funds or adult learners with limited time. What, he asked, is so special about 120 credits?

Limited funds is a great benefit and argument for the 13th year option too.

Students could take a few courses in the 13th year while working, so as to save money for college tuition.

Students could take the IB class as part of the 13th year and then pass a test and get college credit for courses, saving money.

Students could go to the IB classes in the 13th year, get the knoweldge, and then go to college and take a placement exam and skip classes. But, more practicle, after the 13th year the students would have solid knowlege and in turn have time for a part time job rather than needing to study so much to just keep up with the classes.

Wong acknowledged that some might assume a loss of knowledge or skills for those graduating with just 100 credits. And he noted that the requirements of some majors and pre-professional programs might make 100 credits impossible for some students. But he said that he would like to see colleges have the flexibility to experiment with 100 credits, and at the same time have measures so students could demonstrate their learning.

Suppose, he said, that graduation was linked to completion of an electronic portfolio in which a student demonstrated knowledge and skills, and that such portfolios could be presented at 100 credits, not just at 120. To those wanting to judge students reaching the two credit levels, "the proof would be in the pudding," he said.

Another great reason for the 5th year option for PPS, the pressure for a 3-year college program. Why spend a year in college when you don't know your major. You can't change majors within your course of studies in college and expect to get past in three years. For those not sure about a specific major -- a 5th year option would be prudent.

While many educators assume that they must offer 120 credits in a bachelor's programs, that rule isn't ironclad. Some accreditors require 120 credits, and many specialized accreditors require so many credits that, when combined with institutional requirements, 120 credits are necessary. But the Education Department's definition of a bachelor's degree doesn't specify credits. Instead it defines bachelor's degree this way: "An award (baccalaureate or equivalent degree, as determined by the Secretary, U.S. Department of Education) that normally requires at least four but not more than five years of full-time equivalent college-level work.... Also includes bachelor's degrees in which the normal four years of work are completed in three years."

The IB program does offer baccalaureate and equivalent to college-level work.

Looking for Evidence

The question of proof of knowledge is central to the success of any venture in three-year degrees, said Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy who has been studying European higher education -- in which three year bachelor's degrees have become the standard through the "Bologna Process," which has set common standards for participating countries. But Adelman said that the key to understanding the European degrees is that they are accompanied by specific learning outcomes and by statements of what the degree qualifies a holder to do. These continent-wide standards are quite different from anything in the United States for three or four years of undergraduate study.

"What makes the Bologna degree what it is is that it's got learning outcomes," Adelman said. "If all you are going to do is tell me that instead of 120 credits, you have 90 credits, that's just a useless piece of paper," he said.

Adelman also questioned whether the focus on three years would help the students most in need of help. The three-year model is based on full-time enrollment, he noted. The population growing more quickly -- and more in need of additional institutional support -- is made up of part-time students, he said. Colleges should focus on their needs, even if they will take much longer than traditional students to graduate. "Life is not necessarily an easy road to a bachelor's degree," he said. Most students can't take a full-time course load, let alone more, Adelman added. "If you want to improve graduation rates, three-year degrees are counterproductive."

He characterized the push for three years as coming from those whose ideas about higher ed amount to: "get it over with and get it over with fast."

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he also worried that the European three-year degrees were not an appropriate model for the United States. A more common high school curriculum and limited expectations about general education, he said, are key to the three-year approach.

Nassirian suggested that if three-year degrees are created simply by squeezing more content into shorter time periods, "I'm actually skeptical that you would save much money." Further, he said, while efficiency and economy are important values, they aren't the only values that matter.

"There's no question that the way we do it has all kinds of avoidable inefficiencies. I'm not suggesting that what we have is perfect," Nassirian said. "But it's very important to be upfront with people and explain the trade-offs" of trying to finish college in three years instead of four. "You wouldn't be able to go from physics to philosophy or philosophy to physics," he said.

And without agreed upon standards for program content, he said, there is a risk that three-year programs could just be less time and less substance. "There's nothing wrong with ramping up programs, but the absence of metrics creates the problem," he said. While it is a satirical example, he admitted, Nassirian said the focus on cutting a year reminded him of the comedian Father Guido Sarducci's sketch on his plans to create the "Five Minute University" -- in which students would learn in five minutes "what the average college graduate remembers" five years after graduation. The cost is $20, which covers tuition, cap and gown rental, and snacks.

  • Students can already complete a bachelor's degree in 3 years if they attend class over each summer in addition to taking (and passing) 5 courses each Fall & Spring semester.

  • The real problem today is students taking 5 years to get a 4 year degree. Sometimes it is the student's fault (dropping courses, taking light loads, etc.), but many times it is due to courses not being offered or too few sections offered, etc. It tends to snowball-if a student doesn't get into the introductory course, he is shut out of the other courses in that area. Colleges and universities do not want to help their students finish more rapidly for economic reasons. My son was able to complete a 4 year degree at UVA in three due to having more than 50 credits when he entered. (college courses taken while in high school and AP courses) But he said it is no longer possible to do that as the courses he was able to take in the summer are no longer available. They were only necessary, so he could get through the courses in his major, which had to be taken in sequence and were only offered in particular semesters. UVA in his day was generous in granting AP credits, which may no longer be the case.

  • Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, NH has been offering a three-year business degree option for a number of years. They redesigned their traditional curriculum to focus on the acquisition and demonstration of competencies, not just credits. The program is for motivated, higher achieving students and would serve as a great model for other institutions.


Anonymous said...

Scott, I am pleased with this rather well balanced look at the three-year question, esp. the historical glimpse at college case studies. My concern about using the Bologna model, which I've shared elsewhere and personally with Cliff (whom I highly respect), is that in an attempt to compare apples to apples (degrees across national boundaries), we're not comparing orchards to orchards (educational systems). If a country has a K-13 system, and proposes to cover the key liberal arts questions before college (or outside of a professional degree), then any comparison of that college degree with American degrees is inherently flawed (with our K-12 system).

Also, from what I can gather, the standardization of U.S. degrees has influenced the Europeans (and now, others) to do the same. I think Cliff is beating a very important drum, and we need to listen, learn and engage with the Bologna planners. However, we also need to influence the discussion and not compromise the liberal arts questions. While recently speaking at a FYE conference in Ireland I chatted with many European, and this was indeed a concern (and unsolicited). As for the three-year timetable itself, I think we need to support models that are both efficient and effective. The agrarian calendar has long been questioned, and thus the success of many adult or continuing education programs. Currently, with the variety of credit sources, from dual-credits in high school, AP courses, CLEP tests and online courses, proactive students are able to adjust their college time. What I hope we never move to is a 13th year before college in the pretense of gaining ground.

Mark Rauterkus said...

I don't want to move to a K-13 model for everyone. I want to have a 13th grade model for some who choose it.

Anonymous said...

It would be possible for student to finish in 3-4 years if they had the funding to do so without working. I had to work full-time in order to have enough money to live while going to college (in addition to financial aide) as my parents made too much money to qualify me for more aide but not enough to help out at all. Maybe the problem is that students are pulled more directions then they were 20+ years ago when you could be a full time student and ONLY a full time student.

We have lost our way. If training for a job is the purpose of universities then 3 years may well be sufficient. However, universities are for education; for the development of wisdom and moral development; for preparing individuals to take the reins of our free and open democratic society.

Well trained as opposed to well educated populations are more likely to accept a ruling class society. We should not embrace a model that encourages that outcome.

Anonymous said...

Much of the rest of the world, Europe and India in particular, offer three-year undergraduate degrees in most fields. Different from the US understanding of the purpose of a college education, they view higher education as primarily intended to specialize in a subject area. Students there focus on the major subject or subjects rather than spend two years on general education, as they do here in the US, because their high school education is much more rigorous than what we have in the United States.

If we were to reorganize the high school curriculum as a preparation for college education, then most of what is called general education at the college level could be completed at the high school level, permitting colleges to focus on specialization. If were were able to do this, most students in most subject areas would be able to complete their college in three years or less.

This would, of course, require a standardized high school curriculum, developed in close collaboration with the higher education leadership a the national level (we need one). Our educational system is way too fragmented at this point, and would require an overhaul that would ensure a seamless approach to education at all levels.


Anonymous said...

With AP classes in high school, high school students able to take community college and regular university level college classes during the summer, or at night and weekends, CLEP exams, and distance learning programs, why are we not surprised by the move to "institutionalize" a 3 year B.A. degree?

With the soaring costs, and the difficulty in obtaining financial aid for students, who will be burdened with debt when they graduate, can you blame them for finding ways to cut their costs and reduce their debt burden? Staying home and commuting, going to a lower priced community college with articulation agreements to again reduce their debt burden are increasingly attractive to students and their families.

Anonymous said...

No...because education is about enjoying the extra curricular activities as well as learning in the classroom. However, the option is there if students choose...

Anonymous said...

My undergraduate honors program waived general education requirements in exchange for a thesis project and 24 credits of honors courses (which I believe included the 9-credit thesis). Add in a few independent study courses, some AP credits, a few heavy semesters, and maybe a summer or two and it's pretty easy to hit 125 credits and be out in under 4 years. Since honors courses tended to be demanding and to cover a wide range of topics, many students got a liberal education and often came very close to meeting general ed requirements without trying, but were still able to do more in less time.

I knew more than one person who got a degree in 3-3.5 years or completed two or more majors on top of the honors program in 4 years. It was also a great fit for those of us who had a four-year scholarship and no declared major.

However, like the students in the article, one girl I knew had ambitious plans to be out in 2.5 years since she already had 18 AP credits and knew her thesis topic coming into her freshman year. She got to college, realized she didn't have life figured out, and wound up taking the full 4 years.

Anonymous said...

My undergraduate honors program waived general education requirements in exchange for a thesis project and 24 credits of honors courses (which I believe included the 9-credit thesis). Add in a few independent study courses, some AP credits, a few heavy semesters, and maybe a summer or two and it's pretty easy to hit 125 credits and be out in under 4 years. Since honors courses tended to be demanding and to cover a wide range of topics, many students got a liberal education and often came very close to meeting general ed requirements without trying, but were still able to do more in less time.

I knew more than one person who got a degree in 3-3.5 years or completed two or more majors on top of the honors program in 4 years. It was also a great fit for those of us who had a four-year scholarship and no declared major.

However, like the students in the article, one girl I knew had ambitious plans to be out in 2.5 years since she already had 18 AP credits and knew her thesis topic coming into her freshman year. She got to college, realized she didn't have life figured out, and wound up taking the full 4 years.

Anonymous said...

Most old Canadian universities offer a 90 credit 3 year BA. Most people opt for the 4 year 120 credit program. General education requirements are minimal at most schools. I think the BA requirement is 6 credits of English and 6 credits lower level and 6 credits upper level math or science.

The Faculty of Science at the University of Manitoba offers a 3-Year degree as well as two 4-Year degrees. The 3-Year degree is 90 credit hours and is called a General degree - not meant for specific scientific training. Students who want specialized training opt for the 4-year Major or 4-Year Honours program; Honours being favoured for prep for grad studies. Both 4-Year degrees are 120 credit hours or more.

Both our General and 4-Major have no time limit: students could do 6 hours a year if they wished (and had the time).

I would suggest that this model could be adopted - no term load limit, specialization being preferred but a general degree being permitted.

Cramming a four year degree into three years shouldn't be a matter of legislation, but only of timetabling.

Mark Rauterkus said...

One of the guys talked about in the article above, Richard Vedder, is a economics professor of mine. I attended Ohio University and he was my teacher.

For what it is worth, I did not spend the traditional four years at Ohio University getting my BS degree. I took a quarter off of school at the end of my sophomore year. It was 1980. I withdrew from college one week into the new term. I had not purchased my books yet. I moved to Boston to take a job as a swim coach -- at Harvard University.

I worked and didn't take classes while there and was unsure of my future. Then in August, I purchased a beater of a vehicle and drove myself back to Athens and finished up at Ohio University. I needed to pay extra tuition on at least one quarter so as to catch-up with my credits so as to finish in what amounted to 11 quarters instead of 12.

Questioner said...

Questioner said...
What nice photos of you and your family ("various photos")!

On the subject of 3 year college- the post says "...the trend for colleges and universities is to condense the undergraduate years from four to three."

But, see yesterday's NYT "An Option to Save $40m000; Squeeze College Into 3 Years." ttp://

It seems like 3 years is very much an exception rather than a trend.

3 year programs would also result in a narrow "pre-professional" approach; in only their second year students would need to worry about lining up key summer positions, and then in the fall go on to job interviews or grad school applications and testing. And with many grad programs very competitive, it would be hard for those students to compete with others who had more time to build resumes and relationships for recommendations.

Re: credits for IB courses- another article recently applied that colleges do not award credits for these programs unless students were part of the entire 2 year program.

With so many scholarship programs available (including the Pgh Promise!) students who rush the college experience may well regret it later.