A Three-Year Degree as a Trend in Higher Education
By Maria Tsuleff
The general public has typically known the traditional college experience to be one of four-years in length where students emerge with a specific Baccalaureate degree, loads of college loans and a well-rounded education not only involving the classroom but which also includes extra-curricular activities and a residence-life experience. However the situation just described is becoming increasingly unnecessary and “less typical” for students seeking an undergraduate degree. The three-year degree or time-shortened degree, as the terms are many times used interchangeably, is a trend in higher education that is not necessarily a new concept but is becoming progressively more popular among colleges, universities and the students who attend such institutions. As this trend is only in its beginning stages, American colleges and universities are attempting to gain knowledge and understanding on how to implement best practices for academics and student development in the wake of a non-traditional, three-year degree.
Although the three year degree is a growing trend here in the Western world, higher education is still figuring the best characteristics and benefits that this type of degree needs to have for undergraduate students. The learning outcomes and benefits of such degrees are usually more intensive without changing requirements. Robert Seidman and Martin Bradley (2002) cite a university in the Northeast United States that has collapsed a four-year degree program into a three-year degree program. This program, like many others of its kind, boasts an interdisciplinary program with faculty and student collaboration. Web-based technologies are essential in completing its goals (Seidman & Bradley, 2002). When three year degrees were first introduced in the United States about 40 years ago, universities stayed away from the idea of year-round school for undergraduates. However, as general education has grown in the academic realm, most three-year degree students cannot accomplish this goal without the use of interterm and summer courses (Lamar, 2009). Robert Shoenberg (1994), in an extensive review of time-shortened degrees, refers to a list of characteristics that are necessary in providing this opportunity in the higher education classroom. Some of these include: availability of required courses; strict definitions of expected learning outcomes; university structure that allows for year-round attendance; good use of independent learning; and early admission into graduate schools (Shoenberg, 1994). No matter what characteristics a three-year degree will have, undergraduates will experience some courses that are more intensive. Educators should recognize that such courses need to include active learning, classroom discussion, applied learning and depth of coverage in order to maximize the student’s learning experience (Scott, 1996).
The Three-Year Degree as a Growing Trend
The recent trend of three-year degree programs really began with the Bologna Process that emerged out of Europe. This process was meant to create a European Higher Education Area “where internal mobility of students, teachers and administrative staff is facilitated, whose competitiveness attracts students from outside and contributes to the broader aim of turning Europe into a leading knowledge-based society” (Cardosa, Miguel, Carla & Fernando, 2007, p. 5). One of the main themes of this process was the movement away from four-year traditional degrees to a three-year degree. The forty-six participating countries moved toward a standard system with two cycles. The first will last a minimum of three years and will be considered the undergraduate portion. The second will not be given a specified length and is the equivalent to a Master’s program (Pechar, 2007). The hope is that this process will “harmonize academic practices in Europe and improve academic mobility across the continent” (Aronauer, 2005). As this becomes the new standard for European universities, American programs, especially graduate schools, are deciding how they will reconcile this shortened-degree to their own requirements. Many are approaching this issue with caution. Rebecca Aronauer (2005) in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education polled 125 American college graduate programs about their feelings toward this new degree. Among the respondents, 37% were willing to admit three-year degree undergraduates if they displayed adequate preparation for graduate work. This adequacy was determined by the quality of their education and if that education was equivalent to a four-year degree. Another 22% of respondents said they were only willing to admit four-year degree undergraduates. However, “Europe believes that their system of 13 years of elementary and secondary education with a three year bachelor’s degree is equivalent to the American version of 12 years of elementary and secondary education with a four-year degree” (Aronauer, 2005).
The number one explanation for this trend in higher education toward three-year degrees in the United States is the growing financial concern of undergraduate students and institutions. Colleges who are looking for new and innovative ways to save students time and money are now offering three year degrees. Alexander Lamar (2001) describes this movement as the following: “The three-year degree could become the higher-education equivalent of the fuel-efficient car. And that’s both an opportunity and a warning for the best higher-education system in the world.” (Lamar, 2009) After interviewing 24 three-year degree undergraduates, Merrick Gilson (2007) found the most prominent reason for a shortened degree was money (Firmin & Gilson, 2007). Due to the economic recession, more and more American families are finding higher education difficult to afford. This may spur a greater number of colleges, especially private institutions which have the highest tuition rate, to offer three-year degree programs in order to keep up enrollment (Frey, 2009). Even though students may be attending the institution and providing financial support for a shorter period of time than the traditional undergraduate, it is far better than not enrolling at all. Robert Shoenberg (1994) found the same to be true stating that the “desirability of permitting or pushing students to pick up the pace has its origin in financial considerations, either the student’s or the institution’s” (Shoenberg, 1994, p. 28). Joan Stark (1973) in her research from the seventies found that because financial aid offered substantial resources to low-income students, accelerated undergraduates were more likely to be found from middle-income families and aside from saving time and money, there were virtually no other external motivations for a time-shortened degree (Stark, 1973). It is important to note that even though this information may be outdated, this element of the trend may still exist and could use further research.
Another cited reason for this trend was the desire and need of accelerated advancement into graduate studies or the career field. Michael Firmin and Krista Merrick Gilson (2007) found that the majority of their 24 three-year degree undergraduate interviewees were planning to graduate early in order to further their education. Quickening the pace of undergraduate education because of financial costs and faster implementation of graduate studies have been the strongest forces within this trend since it first began. Stark (1973) in her research from nearly 40 years ago found that those seeking accelerated degrees fell on two ends of a spectrum: those wanting to enter a career or graduate school and the other being those who wanted to finish schooling as quickly as possible (Stark, 1973). This trend of a three-year degree has the greatest appeal for those majors which require extensive training beyond the traditional undergraduate. For example, those in the medical field seek three-year degree programs in order to enter their residency and specialized fields faster than others (Lamar, 2009).
Those students who are driven by both financial concerns and career aspirations are most attracted to the three-year degree. These students have the benefit of saving 25% of the cost of their college education and they enter the job or graduate school market a year earlier than those working toward a four-year degree. This is a strong motivator for those in competitive fields (Seidman, 2002).
Effects on Student Opinion and Behavior
Although time-shortened degrees are a rapidly increasing trend in higher education, the trend is recent and therefore little research has been done in the way of student attitudes and implications on their development (Singh & Martin, 2006). However there are some areas we can begin to look toward and uncover as we see this trend develop.
Those students who are using a three-year degree as an accelerator into graduate school typically have little reservations about shortening their undergraduate experience. Many of these accelerated programs are created with high-ability and highly motivated students in mind. For many of these students, the fall to spring idea of education is outdated and no longer relevant in the world of academia. Summer break is virtually obsolete and the need for a four-year degree is certainly unnecessary. These students also use high school to help spur the accelerated degree process by using AP credits to advance their work (Lamar, 2009). Being focused was cited as a strong motivator behind the students in these programs. Some were tired or bored with their undergraduate school and wanted the experiences of a graduate program sooner rather than later. Firmin and Gilson (2007) found that students usually made the decision to accelerate their undergraduate within the first two years and with little influence or pressure from others. Other reasons they named for wanting to finish their experience early were: relationships; saving time; dislike of dorms or the regions weather; and inability to practice their hobbies and interests at their college’s location. These highly motivated students also tend to show great satisfaction with the results of their efforts and do not feel as much academic or social deprivation that some may expect (Stark, 1973).
Even in the absence of specified student development research, many three-year degree articles display that there are already starkly recognizable implications for students in accelerated programs that may in the end deter traditional colleges and universities from using this structure. Some feel as though collapsing a four-year degree into three may rush a student’s academic experience. It deprives a student the opportunities to explore the intellectual world. This also leaves far less time to mature, participate in campus activities and to study abroad. Schools like Waldorf College in Iowa desire for their students a full experience academically, socially and athletically and feel that a three-year degree detracts from that experience (Lamar, 2009). Other costs that were cited from interviews with students who participate in accelerated education were less time and dedication to social life, relationships, dorm experience and extra-curricular activities. These same students described certain sacrifices such as summers, social lives, time in general, amount of sleep and pressure to take heavier course loads as necessary in order to finish this degree in the allotted time. Elements that they would miss were: activities; relationships; the fourth year experience in general; a complete college experience; and a chance to take other courses (Firmin & Gilson, 2007). Another possible cost with this trend is the potential trade-off of a quality education for financial benefit. In many ways, the intellectual growth and maturity of students depends on contact with other students and faculty outside of the classroom and participation in co-curricular activities. No specific cognitive aspects of education are lost but there is an element of experiential learning that is left out of the three-year degree process (Shoenberg, 1994).
There are many aspects of a three-year degree that colleges and universities should be aware of and approach cautiously. Shortened degrees require large amounts of work from multiple areas of a university. Faculty members have a key role in the process. As educators, faculty are often hesitant to change core curriculum allowing for an accelerated degree. Another fear is that time-shortened programs will bring less revenue for universities and create longer hours for faculty (Lamar, 2009). As universities work toward this model it is important that they reconcile these new academic policies with already existing ones from national guidelines. Not excluding faculty from the shaping of these accelerated programs is also important to remember. The motivation behind a university decision should also align with the mission of that school and the new format must be based on strategies that enhance student learning and are not used solely to advance the university itself (ie. attract more student enrollment) (Donaldson, 2001). These types of concerns are imperative as higher education moves to a shortened degree while trying to avoid the depreciation of the Bachelor degree.
Implications for Student Development
We can begin to see the impact of a three-year degree by looking at the type of student who enrolls in this kind of program. For example, Firmin and Gilson (2007) found that out of those students who wanted to accelerate into graduate school, half were Type A personality. These students displayed self-discipline, self-motivation and drive not only in their academic but in their natural lifestyle. These types of students may be more likely to experience some sort of advanced development within Marcia’s Ego Identity status. In this process, either a crisis where everything is questioned or a commitment where ownership of choices is made prevails (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton & Renn, 2006). Students who are highly driven are more likely to be in a committed to a vocational goal and are therefore satisfied with their education and experience (Waterman, 1970).
The application and implications of student development within a three year degree program will be the next essential step in this process as this trend will continue to grow and expand throughout higher education. How students develop, specifically within the psychosocial theories of Erikson and Chickering, is crucial to the identity of these undergraduates in their college experience and then emergence into adulthood. Erikson’s “identity versus identity diffusion” and multiple vectors of Chickering including “developing competence, moving through autonomy toward interdependence and developing purpose” may be specific areas that these types of accelerated students might struggle to overcome within their personal development (Evans, 2010. As students naturally progress through the stages of identity development throughout their college experience, to remove a year of that process may result in a fast-track toward a degree but it may also result in an eliminated or a stunted developmental growth. For colleges and universities who champion whole-person education as a goal for their students, the costs and benefits of a three year degree within a student’s identity development may perhaps determine whether or not such a program is even good to implement. Even if universities do not plan for this process, the trend is happening and college educators need to be aware and well versed in what students gain but also leave behind in a shortened experience. Even if a student only attends a school for three years, it is still within that school’s purview and to their benefit to understand how those students will development while enrolled in their undergraduate program.
Maria Tsuleff is a graduate student in the MAHE program at Taylor University where she serves as the Graduate Assistant to the Honors Program.
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