The tough economy continues to boost the number of students in college, as people try to burnish their job credentials. That's leading some schools to ask whether they should shrink the time it takes to get a degree.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has ordered state universities to investigate ways for students to get a bachelor's degree in three years. The hope is that three-year degrees will help save students money and get them into the job market more quickly.
Kasich's proposal is one of a number of measures he is pushing to cut the cost of higher education, including a limit on tuition increases. The Republican governor also says faculty members should spend more of their time teaching. Matt Mayer of the Buckeye Institute, a free-market think tank, says a three-year degree would help make higher education more efficient.
"If we really kind of strip down higher ed and the four-year degree down to a really rigorous three-year process, for many kids that would be a great road to get their skills, get their knowledge base, graduate and then become productive members of society," Mayer says.
The idea is that students spend less time paying tuition and more time working. The challenge is doing that without watering down the degree. Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., has had a "Degree in 3" program since 2005. University Vice President Tom Taylor says the program appeals to highly motivated students who are willing to go to school year-round.
"Students are utilizing summers to take full loads — two, in some cases three, summers — depending on the academic program," Taylor says.
Students have to pay for those summer courses, so in the end they only save a few hundred dollars off a $26,000 tuition bill for the degree.
While there is a demand for this kind of program, it's clearly limited — only 25 or so students a year sign up for Ball State's program; other schools have similar numbers.
Taylor says the program only attracts students who have their act together and know what they want to do.
But maybe more students would sign up if a college offered a degree you could really do in three years, without summer school. That could lead to a real savings, since students would pay only three years of tuition. Baldwin-Wallace College, a liberal arts school outside Cleveland, is working on a true three-year degree, according to Associate Vice President Jim McCargar.
"This would reduce the cost of attendance for this particular program at Baldwin-Wallace by 25 percent," McCargar says.
Baldwin-Wallace is starting out slow. The school wants to offer its degree in communication disorders in this accelerated program. McCargar says that required courses in the major would not change, but some of the electives would disappear. The state board of regents would have to approve this "low-fat" degree and so would the Higher Learning Commission, the school's accrediting body.
But if Commission President Sylvia Manning's reaction is any indicator, it's not going happen anytime soon. "There might be some utility in a three-year degree. I just don't think we should call it a bachelor's degree any more than I think we should call it a master's degree."
Manning says she hasn't seen the Baldwin-Wallace request but there's a good reason to protect the sanctity of the four-year experience. Other countries, particularly in the British Commonwealth, offer regular degrees after three years and honors degrees to top students after a fourth year. The toughest part of switching to this model is that so many American students need remedial work when they get to college.