Guest post: “A resounding yes” to the degree in three

Wednesday, July 27, 2011
The following submission was originally published for the Washington Post’s "College Inc." blog and first appeared on July 22, 2011



In a recent article, I discussed the apparent failure of three-year bachelor degree programs to catch on with the college-going public. The Post opined favorably on the three-year degree in a subsequent editorial.


The conversation continues. Here is a guest blog post by Robert H. Seidman, a professor at Southern New Hampshire University and co-author of the forthcoming book “Saving Higher Education: The Integrated, Competency-Based Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree Program.”

Higher education is at a breaking point. The cost of a college education has spiraled out of control, leaving deserving students priced out of a bright future and putting our nation at risk of losing much-needed talent. Many states are reducing funding for state supported colleges and universities driving the cost of securing an education even higher. Therefore, a three-year degree that can save students 25 percent and colleges almost that much looks attractive to many families, politicians and government officials.

The Post’s editorial advocating three-year college degrees makes a lot of sense, and it also raises many important questions.

While pricing citizens out of higher education is bad for them and bad for our nation, some may rightly question whether or not students can truly learn as much in three years as they can in four. Are three-year graduates as employable as four-year graduates? Also, is it possible for colleges to save educational delivery costs by offering three-year programs? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “Yes.” Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) three-year degree model is the proof.

SNHU’s three-year degree program in business administration graduated its 12th class in May and is the longest-running three-year program of its kind in the nation. Students attend and pay for just six semesters and are not required to take summer or winter-session courses. They score on a par with or above their four-year counterparts on nationally normed major tests and fully participate in extra-curricular activities, including NCAA athletics.

The SNHU program is based upon competencies, which consist of knowledge and skills. Together, these competencies define what a college-educated person should know and be able to do. Employers are happy because they are assured that graduates from competency-based programs have earned a high-quality education. Students are well prepared to go on to graduate school, and many do. The SNHU retention and graduation statistics are quite remarkable with an overall first-to-second-year retention rate of 87 percent, in contrast to a 71 percent national rate for four-year students. The overall on-time SNHU three-year-graduation rate is 79 percent compared to a national on-time four-year-graduation rate of 39 percent.

What makes this model different from the typical accelerated three-year model is a competency-based approach where learning, not class-time, is the constant. For example, public speaking instruction is built into almost all courses in the first three semesters so that students don’t have to take the separate public speaking course that four-year students must take. At the end of their third semester, students are awarded three credits for public speaking course work if they have attained the requisite competencies. Although three-year students take fewer courses, they still graduate with 120 credits, the same as their four-year counterparts. The liberal arts component of their education is not diminished in any way. Offering fewer discrete courses saves the institution delivery costs which can be up to 25 percent. This is a win-win.

Higher education utilizes three types of three-year models. The Accelerated Model is most prevalent. It typically squeezes 40 three-credit courses into 36 months and students must take summer and/or winter session classes. Although some schools charge three years of tuition, many more charge four years for the three years of schooling. In the first case, schools may lose money since they deliver four years’ worth of courses and receive only three years tuition. In both cases, schools may need to deliver additional course sections to ensure that students graduate on time.

The Prior Learning Model entails transferring previous academic work, such as high school AP courses or equivalent work experience, with enough equivalent credits to make students college sophomores. There are no cost savings for the institution but there is a 25 percent cost savings for the students. However, the pool of students able to transfer 30 credits is limited. Transferring less than 30 credits puts students into a version of the Accelerated Model.

The Integrated Model used by SNHU is based upon competency attainment and does not rely on class-time as a measure of learning. Measuring academic attainment with the class-time yardstick has a long history. However, with the advent of online courses, class-time has become a less relevant and much less accurate measure of learning. A more accurate measure of education quality can be had by using outcomes-based assessment techniques targeted to the competencies.

The transformation from a four-year degree into a competency-based integrated three-year degree can be accomplished through a curriculum redesign that eliminates unnecessary content redundancy and overlap while at the same time preserving academic quality. Each existing course in a four-year program is taken apart topic by topic and then reconstructed and integrated within a competency-based framework. New academic experiences are created and sequenced in an efficient manner along with their expected outcomes, assessment strategies and teaching and learning approaches.

Part of what makes the Integrated Model “integrated” is the focused integrating experiences. Competencies can be reinforced, expanded and reflected upon in a number of innovative and diverse credit-bearing academic experiences. An integrating experience is carefully designed to help students synthesize course content, reinforce and gain new knowledge and skills, and understand the relevance and relatedness of their studies. One example is the creation and management of a year-long consultancy to aid nonprofit organizations during the program’s third year. Another example is a shorter more focused integrating experience during the last week of each semester.

Granted, three-year degree programs are not for everyone. Some students need more time to choose a major area of study and others need more time to develop personally. But for the many students who are priced out of higher education, a three-year program can be the difference between having only a high school degree and earning a college education. It’s time for colleges and universities to provide the affordability and accessibility that so many families and students deserve.

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