3 years and out: Some colleges speed graduation

Back to School Series: Making Time

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Kayleigh Dickie is determined not to take a leisurely path through college.

In fact, the California University of Pennsylvania student went so far as sign a pact in which CalU pledges to help her finish on time if she agrees, among other things, to give a campus adviser greater say in the courses she picks.

Signing a "four-year graduation plan agreement" may sound extreme, but the elementary education major said it beats the alternative: wasting money on unnecessary electives, or finding out that a course required to graduate isn't offered her senior year.

Kayla Fekete is moving even faster. The Chatham University student squeezes in extra courses each semester for an interior architecture bachelor's program created to be finished in three years instead of four, with no summer study.

A four-day series that looks at how schools and students use the school day.

"I know I'll probably want to kill myself afterward," she quipped about the 21 credits she's taking now. "It's worth it."

Just how long should a four-year college degree take?

With students taking longer to finish an ever-more-expensive education, families and schools alike are under pressure to speed things up.

A small number of campuses, including Chatham, have responded by creating three-year versions of certain bachelor's programs. Other schools have tried graduation incentives or agreements to nudge undergraduates along.

State legislatures are weighing in, too.

Pennsylvania spends millions of dollars annually on dual-enrollment programs allowing students to start accruing college credits while still in high school. Rhode Island law now requires the board overseeing public campuses in that state to develop ways for more students to finish a year of college while in high school.

In other states, including Virginia and North Carolina, public campus stragglers who remain well beyond the 120 credits needed for a bachelor's degree face tuition surcharges, in some cases approaching out-of-state rates.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill goes even further, limiting double majors to only those students able to finish them within eight semesters.

"The message we're trying to send here is this is a four-year school," said Bobbi Owen, a senior associate dean for undergraduate education.

Of various ideas to speed students along, the "bachelor's in three" has drawn particular attention amid the recession.

The concept, similar to a model used in Europe, got a boost from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., former U.S. education secretary and University of Tennessee president. He urged a gathering of higher education leaders last year to develop three-year degrees to hold down tuition costs.

Proponents say it makes sense: Create an accelerated course of study with just as many credit hours but fewer redundancies, and allow only students capable of handling the rigor to enroll.

But others argue that, in some states, policymakers eager to cut costs are deluding themselves into thinking huge numbers of students won't be harmed by forgoing summer study abroad and internships for year-round classes, or by cutting out a year's worth of credit hours altogether.

"It's sort of like those shampoo commercials -- same price but the bottle is a little bit smaller," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Getting more students to graduate in four years makes sense, as do optional, accelerated programs for small numbers of highly motivated students, said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Colleges and Universities.

But schools, if anything, are struggling to fit into existing programs new workplace skills -- from information literacy to global knowledge -- that weren't required a generation ago.

"Employers are asking for more," she said. "Not less."

Nationwide, 27 percent of students in public universities and 48 percent in private universities graduate within four years, says the ACT, an Iowa-based nonprofit provider of college entrance exams and other services. The figures include only full-time students enrolled for the first time, and thus exclude some students, including those who transfer to another school and later graduate.

Even so, most agree too many students get bogged down, or simply drop out.

One reason, say experts, is a shift in the college-going population, away from residential, full-time students decades ago to working adults enrolled part-time, and others who arrive from poorer backgrounds and need remedial help.

Certain degrees -- in fields like engineering -- have professional and certification requirements that make it hard to finish in four years.

Soaring prices, too, have taken a toll, forcing students to interrupt their studies to work.

Others point to yet another culprit: a bloated curriculum.

Campuses in the free-wheeling 1960s ceded to students more freedom to pick courses as they pleased and change majors virtually at will, say Robert Zemsky and Joni Finney, two education policy experts at the University of Pennsylvania who co-wrote a May essay for the San Jose, Calif.-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Faculty in turn gained more autonomy to "teach what they wanted to teach, when and how," adding courses on topics that interested them, sometimes without regard to the progression of the major, said Dr. Finney, the center's vice president.

The result over time was an explosion of course offerings and students who sometimes "have 140 credits but not enough to graduate because [they] didn't focus on their major," she said.

Such "curriculum creep" was at issue early last decade within Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities, including California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock in Western Pennsylvania.

Graduation requirements in some majors ballooned toward 150 credits, system spokesman Kenn Marshall said. In response, administrators set a 120-credit standard, unless a strong case could be made for a higher number.

James Moran, Slippery Rock's provost, remembers difficult campus discussions over what could stay and what must go. On one hand, he said, the public is right to expect efficiency, and he agreed that "some of the programs we had certainly were bloated."

But, he said, those preoccupied with speeding students through college and into the job market assume that teens know right out of high school what major suits them best. Often, they don't.

"I don't know that it's bad to discover you're someone different than you were at 18," he said.

But for those who are confident of their career path -- like Ms. Fekete, 18, a Chatham sophomore from Troy Hill -- a three-year degree means a faster way into the job market and a year's less tuition.

The three-year interior architecture degree at Chatham had to fit into the regular school year, without summer courses, because school leaders wanted that season free for internships and study abroad. Summer tuition charges would have negated overall savings.

So faculty instead examined every course and assignment in the existing program, looking to streamline.

Design studio classes that met weekly over a 14-week semester were compressed into seven-week studios that met twice a week. Faculty tweaked assignments to sharpen focus and reduced subject overlap between courses.

"We're not saying we don't believe in reinforcement, but it gets to a point that once students get it, they get it," said Lori Anthony, interior architecture program director. She said early results suggested students were holding up. Ms. Fekete holds a 3.41 grade point average.

"I don't believe they're missing out on anything," Ms. Anthony said. "If anything, they're better at time management."

CalU's "four-year graduation plan agreement" debuted last fall.

Students must sign it the first two weeks of their freshman year, have a declared major and keep their grades up. Each student meets with a regular course adviser but also must meet at least once a semester with a counselor who monitors progress and makes suggestions about courses to take and in what order.

Ms. Dickie, 19, a sophomore from Center, said such oversight helped avoid costly mistakes in the class registration line.

"It can get a little confusing when you see a big list of courses," she said. "It's nice to have someone looking out for you."

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1977.


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