Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Three Year Degree - Ingenious or Falling Short?

The cost of a college degree continues to rise. One might think this is incentive enough to get through as quickly as possible. On the contrary, the national average for students graduating college within six years is only 53%. While this graduation rate is disturbing, it does not tell the whole story. Some extend their stay to balance work and school, the former a necessity in order to be able to afford the tuition costs. Others have fallen victim to budget cuts and class schedule reductions, making it more difficult to register for and complete required courses on time.

Despite the trend towards extending one’s colleges years, programs are becoming more prevalent at universities around the country which offer the opportunity to earn a degree in three years. These programs are not for everyone yet their proponents claim that the benefits are multiple: students save on tuition, room and board, colleges achieve better utilization of their resources by offering classes year round and graduation rates improve.

With cost pressures driving many decisions today, several colleges, including University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY and the University of Illinois now offer a three year degree. To ensure timely graduation, these programs generally include priority registration and special advising to the students which enable them to adhere to a tight timetable and to stay focused. Bate College in Lewiston, Maine has offered the three year degree since 1965, yet to date few students have actually taken advantage of it.

Proponents cite the cost advantages for students and more rapid turnover for universities as students earn degrees in a shorter period of time. Those in support of these programs also believe they will force positive changes in curriculum as colleges seeks ways to cover a multitude of subjects in a more condensed time frame. This, they profess, will lead to a greater emphasis on inter-disciplinary learning.

The three year degree is clearly not for everyone. Students who benefit must be prepared to step onto the fast track. Often workloads are heavy and schedules require year round attendance to finish within three years. Are you prepared to declare a major after your first year? Forget the three year degree if you want to explore a variety of subjects before making that decision. It is also not a practical route for those who must work to support themselves through college.

Critics question the practicality of three year programs when students already have a tough time finishing in four. Three year programs also challenge the very essence of the college experience which goes beyond academics alone. Students who finish in three will have limited time, if any, to participate in extra-curricular activities and take part in many of the social aspects which some might argue are a primary component of college life. Students would also be forced to forgo pursuing courses out of sheer interest, since the truncated time schedule will restrict the ability to explore. Last but not least, some question whether the three year degree serves the needs of the market, where employers are placing new demands on college graduates. Having a specific skill is often not what those hiring really want to see. Today’s business leaders are redefining the necessary core skills for success, e.g., global and inter-cultural awareness, teamwork and problem solving skills, ethical reasoning, critical thinking and decision making capabilities. Will a rush to get through in three years short change students in these areas? There is no doubt that some serious curriculum re-design must be part of any trend to finish college in record time.

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