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Three to Degree

Is the grass greener on campuses with three-year bachelor's degree programs? See what a closer look at these offerings and the decision-making behind them reveals.
University Business, Sep 2010
With incoming cohorts in the three-year interior architecture program at Chatham University kept at eight to 12 students, students get to know each other and their instructors well.

It took one determined program director, two tries, three years, and much collective brainpower—but at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, today's interior architecture program students can earn a bachelor degree in three years rather than four.

Lori A. Anthony, now director of interior architecture programs, recalls her dean passing along an article on three-year degrees back in 2006 as a meeting ended. With no shortage of local competition among institutions offering interior design degrees and a curriculum review already underway in preparation for accreditation, it seemed the time was right to pursue innovative ideas.

So she and a few faculty in the small department, formed in 2005, spent a day examining what was and wasn't working in the curriculum and how a credit-heavy program with 78 required credits could be condensed. A plan requiring summer sessions was brought to President Esther Barazzone's desk—and rejected. What if students wanted to study abroad or needed to work?

The team went back to the drawing board and took a hard look at the studio course sequence and how the content related to lecture course content. Redundancies in the curriculum could be eliminated. Lecture courses could remain on the 14-week semester schedule, but studios could meet twice instead of once a week and last half a semester each. The seven-week schedule was not new to Chatham, which also requires some enrollment in "May-mester" courses.

The program was converted to three years instead of four through changes to the frequency and duration of hands-on studio courses.

The plan got approved and the program launched in 2009. "We assume all incoming students will be on the three-year track," says Anthony. Students can take longer, such as for a double major. But if they follow the program as designed, they're done in three years and have saved $32,542 in tuition, room, and board (in today's dollars).

A three-year bachelor's program aimed at traditional students is a fresh concept but certainly not unheard of. It's part of a growing realization that "we don't have to teach classes three times a week for 50 minutes for 16 weeks," says Royce Ann Collins, who blogs for the Commission for Accelerated Programs. An assistant professor for adult education at Kansas State University, Collins points out that the concept dates back to the 1970s as a way to reach adult students. At one previous institution, the age requirement for the accelerated program dropped from 23 to 18. "I was skeptical about this particular population, but they proved me wrong," she says.

Accelerated degree programs have become a growing part of the national higher ed conversation. U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander urged consideration of a three-year degree at the February 2009 ACE Annual Meeting. Robert Zemsky, chair and CEO of The Learning Alliance, which provides senior administrators with research and support services, covered the three-year degree in his book Making Reform Work (Rutgers University Press, 2009), and that fall his thoughts were featured in a Newsweek cover story.

'Students are very fast-paced now, used to answers not in a week but in the next hour. We think this pace of curriculum kind of marries nicely with the students who are coming to us.'
-Lori Anthony, Chatham University

"At that point, everybody started talking about it," says Zemsky, whose organization gets about a call a week from an administrator considering three-year degrees. A May 2010 op-ed co-written by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of The George Washington University (D.C.), in The New York Times argued for wider availability of these programs, prompting more talk?and debate. Legislatures in at least two states, Rhode Island and Indiana, have pushed for mandates that require three-year offerings.

"We know of just over 40 schools that offer some form of three-year degree. We expect it to reach 100 by the end of the year," says Martin Bradley, a professor at Southern New Hampshire University who is writing a book on the topic. "I think you'll continue to see a parade of announcements all fall and spring."

The recession has certainly played its part in fueling the fire. "Even if you're going to a state institution, it's expensive," reminds higher ed consultant Kathy Kurz, vice president of Scannell & Kurz. "Packaging a three-year program, if you can do it in a way that doesn't sacrifice academic quality, has real appeal in this economy." Families can save, and graduates can begin earning a paycheck more quickly.

In Bradley's view, the time for these programs is right now. "We're in an era where universities need to be responsive to society's needs. We're hearing from our public officials and primary stakeholders that they can no longer afford the cost of education."

There are multiple arguments for and against three-year bachelor degrees. There are also multiple models to consider.

Three-year degrees make big-picture sense, argue those who believe higher education needs a major shake-up. Bradley groups it with the medical community as "the only two professions remaining that have not been forced to rethink and restructure how we're doing business." Zemsky points to the lack of a fundamental redesign in 65 years, saying a "dislodging event"--three-year degrees being the most obvious one--is called for.

As Bradley points out, four-year degrees tend to be "a collection of courses that lack coordination" and students pick and choose from courses that fit their schedule. This cafeteria-style system doesn't provide the best academic nourishment. And, Zemsky adds, you wind up with large numbers of students graduating with 140 credits for a 120-credit degree. "A lot are just 'time' credits; 'I didn't get into this course but I need to take this many to qualify for student aid.' "

Zemsky's proposal isn't about squeezing four years into three, he says. He suggests 90 units instead of 120 for a baccalaureate degree, with a simplified curriculum that's more navigable for students and faculty, built from defined pathways of courses to be taken in a particular order. He likens it to gardening: "When you prune plants they actually get smaller and more robust."

No matter what model is used, as Collins sees things, "we should be looking at how students learn, not how long their butts are in the seats."

Three-year degrees could also be a way to keep facilities and classes full. Trachtenberg estimates that at the typical college, facilities are used for academic purposes only a little more than half the calendar year. Maintenance and energy costs, of course, are on a 12-month calendar. Kurz says that while three-year programs can mean needing to recruit larger numbers of students, "you can think of them as being a way to 'fill in' for students there for four years who want to spend a year studying abroad."

Three-year programs also seem to draw students. Although not a proponent of these programs, Jack Maguire, chairman and founder of Maguire Associates, a higher ed consulting firm, acknowledges that "adding another option will increase the attractiveness of an institution."

The cost savings may just be one factor. "Students are very fast-paced now, used to answers not in a week but in the next hour," notes Anthony. For Chatham at least, "we think this pace of curriculum kind of marries nicely with the students who are coming to us."

"Anyone who takes a superficial first look at [three-year bachelor degrees] thinks there's got to be something there," says Dan Sullivan, who retired from a 13-year presidency at St. Lawrence University (N.Y.) in 2009. Reading the Times op-ed, the first reaction may well be, "That's got to make sense, especially if we could ensure the outcomes for students were as good as under the current model of even better."

When Sullivan did explore further, he decided against pursuing that kind of change. "You have to ask yourself, 'why, if it would be so good, haven't more institutions done it?' I think the answer is, as they begin to get into it as we did, it's way more expensive than people think, and the outcomes might be worrisomely lower."

Maguire's biggest concern is research-based. "Students coming out of high school into college aren't putting in the time that they used to," he says. "If I were constructing a program, I'd probably make it more demanding. As knowledge increases exponentially, the idea that we can take a degree down in time doesn't make sense to me."

'We have too many options, and that's what's driving us over the economic cliff. If you're going to do it, you have to do it, or you won't get any of the benefits.'
-Robert Zemsky, The Education Alliance

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, has made a formal statement challenging proposals to expand three-year degree options for a large number of students or to reduce the number of credits required for a degree. Employers are asking for more attention to development of global and intercultural knowledge, innovation, teamwork, information literacy, ethical reasoning, and other competencies, she pointed out. "None of these were central to the expected curriculum a generation ago; today, all of them are essential."

In our interview, she added, "It's challenging to do all that's expected in four calendar years?daunting to think about how you would do it in three."

She doesn't object to options that involve consolidating and accelerating the time to a four-year degree by students bringing in AP credits and taking a more intense load that may include summer courses. But those proposing cutting off a year are suggesting "an emaciated degree," she says. "I honestly do not believe any of them have read papers written by mainstream 18-year-olds." There's a "preparation shortfall," with three-quarters of students entering college not having taken the courses in high school that gave them the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college, she says. To those who "assume I'm defending the 120 credit hours," she adds, that is simply the stronger frame of reference at the moment.

And do students really want to complete school in three years anyway? Sullivan points to a lack of market research. The Times op-ed, he says, "just took for granted that there would be high demand for this, if only the faculty and the other foot draggers at institutions would get out of their own way." He adds that "college is not just about physics and writing, it's about developing the whole student, as citizen, as global player." So while it's possible now for students to take overloads and finish early, "very few students choose to do this. They choose the four-year experience because they want the whole package."

Even at Southern Oregon University--where students can apply for the Accelerated Baccalaureate Degree Program, which allows up to a full year of credit hours to be waived so that they enter as sophomores--"far more students qualify for the program than actually apply," says Curt Bacon, who directs the program and is the former School of Business Chair. "The biggest limiting factor: It's hard to find a 17- or 18-year-old student who's focused, knows what they want to do, [and] wants to be done in three years."

Bradley worries about students who compress their education into three years at institutions that force them "to jump on a conveyor belt and run through the program at a much faster pace. Something has got to give in the process."

Sullivan believes what will give is engagement, which leads to retention. "If you look carefully, the amount of time students spend in out-of-class experiences inevitably gets reduced, [and they get] lower exposure to those things that increase their commitment."

With all of that in mind, institutional leaders taking a closer look at formal three-year programs must consider their own students and cost projections. Schneider suggests examining how well students are currently doing on intended outcomes of a college education for the 21st century and how prepared they are coming in for college-level work. And of the compressed programs Bradley is tracking, some officials haven't thought through the financial impact of the new model. He sees "a slippery slope. Colleges and universities need to be responsive [to family needs], but they need to see the whole picture and recognize that they need to protect the institution as well." Perhaps the institution could recoup enrollment by getting graduates right into a master's program, Zemsky suggests.

Those still looking to move forward would do well to recognize the need for:

  • Faculty buy-in. As Trachtenberg noted in a follow-up interview to his Times piece, a proposal with changes to the academic calendar at George Washington University a few years back did not get voted against?the faculty senate voted to not even consider it. Understand that a three-year degree proposal will likely come across as disrupting the teacher/scholar model.
  • A curriculum overhaul. It will hardly be as simple as a textbook change. Publishers put as much as they can into textbooks, anticipating that professors will pick and choose what to teach, but with the increase of adjunct faculty, more and more instructors are going by the book, Bradley points out. Reducing curricular redundancies means both identifying them and getting faculty on the same page about who is teaching what.
  • New schedules. An analysis of course-taking patterns will show who is taking what and where, and whether over-enrollment is a phenomenon that exists, Zemsky says. And rather than a buffet of courses, "you need more of a prix fix menu." Having students take summer courses to fulfill their requirements in three years will be tempting, but experts agree it's something to avoid. "We're doing this as a way for students to gain greater access," says Margaret Drugovich, president of Hartwick College (N.Y.) of the Three-Year Bachelor's Degree Program, which does not require summers. "We know many of our students need to work during the summer, and also many students do research in the summer, sometimes paid, sometimes unpaid. So we didn't want to make this offering in a way that would actually constrain important activities for our students."

At a glance, here's how officials at five institutions made decisions about their three-year programs:

The School of Business's 3Year Honors Program, launched in 1997, provides a bachelor's degree in business administration in six semesters, with no nights, weekends, or summers. Students must meet specific competencies upon graduation that include communication, leadership, information technology, and analytical and problem-solving skills.

  •  Faculty: In 1996, the school won a Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It allowed a group of faculty from across various disciplines to be compensated for their time as part of a yearlong research team tasked with reworking the business curriculum. They were told, "If you could break any rule that hinders learning, let's talk about it," recalls Martin Bradley, who led in the development of the program.
  •  Curriculum: "The curriculum was totally blown apart and put back together to eliminate redundancy," says Program Director Ashley Liadis. The team looked for redundancies and overlap, such as theories of motivation, which might traditionally be covered several times throughout a business program, Bradley explains.

Students in the honors business program at Southern New Hampshire U take a highly coordinated sequence of courses.

Instead of 40 classes with 3 credits each, there are 32 courses, with the other topics woven in. One example: Rather than being a separate class, public speaking is embedded into an English and math class and students get public speaking listed on their transcripts. Students earn credit by taking a course, having concepts embedded within other courses, and through "unique learning experiences," such as by running a business senior year.

Liadis points out that 40 percent of the curriculum is still liberal-arts based. "We haven't trimmed out the liberal arts. I cringe when I hear people saying you can't graduate in three years because you lose your liberal arts."

    • Scheduling: Students in each cohort have gone through the same foundation courses first and are always building on skills learned. With the first two modules of the semester complete by Columbus Day, students head home that weekend having already earned 6 credits, Bradley says. A total of five courses are completed by semester's end, with extra credits earned for a culminating integrated experience that last week.
  • Indications of Success: With less courses to teach, delivery costs were cut by almost 25 percent, and last year the program contributed $1 million to the bottom line, Liadis says. Students outperform others at the institution and nearly 40 percent stay on for their master's degree. "Students who come to us have had enormous success because it's highly coordinated," she adds. Upon graduation, they can demonstrate having the necessary competencies. The program is also a help with recruitment. In a June survey of the incoming class, she says, 72 percent said their main reason for attending was the three-year program.

The Accelerated Baccalaureate Degree Program, launched in 1998, has had as many as 17 participating academic programs at once, with 15 currently. Students apply after being accepted to the university, and their program application packets?including high school transcripts, recommendations, a resume, work samples, SAT and ACT scores, and a personal essay?are evaluated by faculty from various academic areas. They can decide to waive up to the equivalent of 16 credits (which is 24 for SOE because it's on a quarter system). Director Curt Bacon can waive additional electives.

  •  Faculty: There's been some faculty pushback, that students are "missing the opportunity to explore," Bacon says. But, he points out, since these students have clear career objectives, they would benefit less from exploratory courses anyway. Each student has an advisor in their major, as well as works with Bacon to stay on track. That advising "is a little labor intensive," he admits. "If you're not making progress, we sit down and say what needs to be done." Bacon gets a stipend and an executive assistant works 10 hours per week, so the costs to the university are modest, about $25,000 per year.
  •  Curriculum: Students can enter their academic programs with sophomore status and take the same classes as anyone else from there. There's "time to work, play, study, volunteer, and compete - time to live," the program's website notes.
  •  Scheduling: Priority registration ensures they don't have class conflicts. And each incoming student is paired with another student, generally a third-year person with the same major. They meet during a social function and program correspondence helps keep them in touch.
  •  Indications of Success: Over the last 12 years, 88.5 percent of those who started the program completed it, Bacon reports. "For the right person, the person who is intelligent and knows what [he or she] wants to do, this is a fantastic program." Yet for the program to remain cost effective for the university, the number of students participating could not grow by much. There are 45 students in the program right now, and he estimates that it could grow to perhaps 90 students without a tremendous increase in workload.

The Three-Year Bachelor of Interior Architecture Program is now entering its second year.

  • Faculty: All three full-time and nine part-time faculty agreed to try to make the compressed program work. It helped that the interior architecture program was new, says Director Lori Anthony. "We didn't have anyone who had been here 20 years or anything," who might well be less open to change. With incoming cohorts of eight to 12 students, faculty members get to know everyone well and can pay attention to ensure student work is up to par.
  • Curriculum: The number of weeks in each studio course was shortened to seven, with the two taken during the same semester relating (e.g., one studio might be designing retail space, and the following one might cover lighting and acoustics, for which students design a plan around the retail project). "It was really a mind shift for faculty who had been used to teaching for 14 weeks," says Anthony. They were asked, "What do you want your students to know at the end of the day, and how are you going to get there?" They got rid of redundancies "without sacrificing repetition," she says. "Repetition is good but when you find you're doing the same thing in five classes, that's redundancy and you need to figure out where it really belongs."
  •  Scheduling: Students register for 19 credits but never take all 19 at once because the semester is split into two sessions for the studio-based courses.
  •  Indications of Success: "We're really mindful of how students are doing," Anthony says, adding that the program is up for accreditation in November. "We're constantly looking at student work. Student work [quality] has not dropped, it's gotten better." Interest in the school appears to be up as well. "I think that this has certainly set us apart from our competition," she notes.

The Three-Year Bachelor's Degree Program has 120 credits, like a traditional four-year program, and is best for focused students. It was launched in February 2009, a year after faculty had revised and approved a new curriculum, which President Margaret Drugovich saw as "flexible enough that we could change the way we offer the program." She says the idea came from years of talking with families who wanted the kind of experience private higher education could offer but that it was out of their reach.

  • Faculty: "We decided we should leave it to the experts about whether they felt the course of study could be delivered with the same quality," she says. Out of 31 academic programs, senior faculty leaders in 24 of them agreed it was possible, and in each of those someone is trained in advising these students.
  • Curriculum: "This really is a traditional offering but in a shorter period of time," she explains. Hartwick's Liberal Arts in Practice program, in which every student must have an experiential piece to their learning, is one feature that had lended itself to being "more creative in the way we allowed students to go through the program," she adds. With the same amount of credits (120) that any other student would take, the three-year program, she stresses, is not a "watering down of the curriculum." And when it comes to critics of these types of programs, she has this response: "We should not presume to know what's best when it comes to the amount of time and money [families] want to spend on their education."
  • Scheduling: Students get priority registration, take a larger course load in each of their six semesters and pursue courses during January term to reach their 120-credit total. The program's website notes that students can still "enjoy every aspect of campus life," and that with summers free they can still work, intern, or travel. Program advisors help students stay on track as they take larger course loads than their peers.
  •  Indications of Success: As of mid-August, 70 students from the in-coming class had indicated their intention to complete their degree in three years; of those, 27 had paid the $500 deposit to formally enroll in the program. Drugovich says the program works for the institution financially in part because students are motivated and likely to graduate at a higher rate than their peers. As for marketing the program and how it relates to the institution's brand, she notes, "We're not trying to wrap Hartwick around the three-year bachelor's degree program. We consider it to be an option."

The Natural Resources Management Track is a partnership between Western and Eastern Iowa Community College District. As of this fall, students can complete the associate of science in conservation technology and the bachelor of science in recreation, park and tourism administration, with a minor in environmental studies, in three years--an option that studies had shown would be appealing, says Joe Rives, vice president of WIU-QC. The program was a good fit for Western, he adds. "What we've tried to emphasize for the past decade or two is that when you're looking at Western you know what your costs are going to be." For example, the institution was the first in the state to implement a cost guarantee that locked in tuition and fees for four years (now all public institutions in Illinois also have it).

Students in the Natural Resources Management Track program at Western Illinois University - Quad Cities are immediately eligible to sit for an exam to become certified park and recreation professionals.

  •  Faculty: After administrators realized the program, which had existed for a decade, could be offered in an accelerated format with no additional resources and could make the school be set apart from its many peers located in the same 60-mile radius, they went to the faculty. "We had conversations about maintaining the academic integrity of the program," says Kristi Mindrup, assistant vice president of Quad Cities and planning. "Once they knew they could offer the program as it was in an accelerated format," most of the faculty were on board, even though it meant having to change their own schedules and being flexible about the way courses were scheduled.
  • Curriculum: Both traditional and accelerated program students enroll in the same classes, which have been scheduled differently.
  • Scheduling: Classes, which range from four to 16 weeks, are held at WIU-QC and a nature preserve on the Mississippi River. Students take more credits over the course of the semester, but they take fewer at one time and their classes meet for more contact hours per week. All students complete a 12-week internship, and a summer wilderness experience is available.
  • Indications of Success: Other three-year programs may be added in the future, but it's not the administrators making the final decisions. "We provide the data to say it's feasible, it's viable," says Rives, but only faculty can decide to pursue a three-year program. Still, Mindrup adds, there has been a great deal of student interest in the current program. "This gave that major a lot more visibility. It gave faculty a chance to say, 'This is what this program is all about.' " Regarding the impact on the institution with administrators and faculty thinking through programs like this, Rives says, "Our end goal is to get students graduated and jobs. While it might mean some up-front work each year, the outcome of students' success is more profitable to the institution."

If these types of programs are to change the face of higher education, visibility through mass participation would be key. But it seems institutions are just dabbling in three-year degrees for undergrads. "Schools got it backwards," Zemsky says of his proposal. "They'll say, 'Bob, we're developing a three-year option.' It's just another option. We have too many options, and that's what's driving us over the economic cliff. If you're going to do it, you have to do it, or you won't get any of the benefits." Students needing remediation, he adds, could get a year of that before entering the three-year program.

In his Times piece, Trachtenberg shared a vision of three years being the norm, but not the rule.

But at no institution is that the case, as of now. And perhaps never. "If you're creative, any program can be converted to a three-year degree?I'm not here to tell you every one should," says Anthony.

"One of the most important pieces of our success," Drugovich says, "is that we didn't require it of every major. We thought it was very important that quality be our first concern."

"Just because it looks like it could work on paper doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work in practice," says Rives.

To help make it work, Kurz hopes officials will do what they can to "offer at least a taste of some of the things that make college [life] attractive." They should be "thinking pedagogically about how they can make the experience a rich experience. Are you, for example, going to be able to offer some kind of international experience even if it won't be a full semester?"

Bradley suspects that as more institutions offer these programs, they will become more accepted and that "will get faculty and administrators thinking more creatively about providing educational experiences that create more value for students, meet institutional needs, meet accreditors' needs, and meet society's needs."

But for today, administrators headed in the direction of three-year bachelor's degrees will need to remain strong during the journey. "Early adopters always have the scars on their backs to prove that they were the early adopters," says Bradley. "I've been hit with my share of arrows, too, but I was willing to take the hits."