Life and learning on the fast track

Is the trend toward accelerated degrees the natural outcome of decades of degree inflation?
By: | Issue: July, 2014
July 1, 2014

Some see the three year baccalaureate as a fad which will ultimately dilute the depth, breadth, and rigor of the true college learning and living experience. Other commentators see the accelerated credentials megatrend as the natural outcome of decades of degree inflation.

Think about the fact that an associate’s degree is no longer the coin of the realm in contemporary American higher education, business, and industry. In fact, in the current economy, one wonders whether four years is too long for a bachelors degree? Enter the three year baccalaureate.

Beyond tuition cost savings and competition, one wonders whether accelerated degree consumer demand is driven by modern learning styles and lifestyles – expecting higher education to go anywhere, anytime. Clearly, American business and industry have embraced the accelerated degree notion out of self-interest – i.e., cost containment of tuition remission and reimbursement, and the need for worksite based classrooms and labs.

From an historical perspective, accelerated degrees actually landed on the scene over 40 years ago. Bates College in Maine and Judson College in Alabama have offered three-year degrees since the 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, for profit, small tuition dependent colleges, larger metropolitan university programs, and even preeminent research institutions deployed these time-compressed, student friendly degree options. By way of example, Rhode Island created a statewide “Bachelor’s Degree in Three Program” through 2009 legislation. In Indiana, Ivy Tech Community College launched a cohort-based one-year associate degree program that targets low-income college-ready students and provides financial aid for tuition, fees and books.

Consider the Wesleyan (Conn.) model, where students who graduate in three years expect to save 20 percent of cost. This option, while not for everyone, is best suited to students who are “able to declare their majors early, earn credit during Wesleyan summer sessions, and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities on campus”.

Having extolled the virtues of accelerated degrees, this treasure trove of time efficiency credentials comes with cautionary instructions. Simply put, this is not a game for the faint of heart. Before proceeding down the fast track, institutions should listen to what their community members think. From a tactical perspective, host institutions should develop a shared vision for how the accelerated degree will impact faculty teaching and student learning outcomes before rolling out accelerated programs.

This proactive accelerated program development process can redefine traditional notions of successive semesters. So, think about deploying summers, intersessions, spring and holiday breaks into active learning time. Early on in the process, academic licensing boards and regional and specialty accreditation commissions should be notified of these impending changes for purposes of updating compliance, self-studies, assessment, continuous improvement, and reaccreditation.

Above the undergraduate level, there are several stratifications of accelerated degrees and certificate options – such as accelerated masters and doctoral programs. As a globally ranked research university, the University of Chicago offers a joint BA/MA program where students may pursue a Master’s degree in International Relations – attained concurrently within their four years of undergraduate study at the University.

Assumption College (MA) undergraduate students studying accounting may earn a combined bachelor’s/MBA degree in 5 years – and what’s more, recent graduates of any major may enroll in a one-year, full-time Early Career Track MBA program – combining 20-hour per week internships with evening coursework on campus.

Even medical schools are playing the accelerated and joint degree game. Union College and Albany Medical recently expanded its joint program to include an MBA degree so that future physicians can be prepared to face the economic challenges and opportunities of practicing medicine in the 21st century.

At the end of the day, we sense a providential momentum for more accelerated degree programs. That said, academic licensing agencies and accreditors have a special stewardship obligation to ensure that accelerated curriculum content and quality of instruction are not diminished. Indeed, these accelerated programs should be carefully planned to ensure quality control, yet respond to an increasingly selective and sophisticated educational consumer.

James Martin and James E. Samels, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.