One-course-at-a-time, gap-year, 2-year programs, and on-line programs! Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all in higher education. Today, higher education is challenging historical and traditional practices. Parents want to know outcomes! They want programs that translate into results. They want to know what “works”. Why does a bachelor’s degree take four years? Why is college typically relegated to two semesters or three trimesters between September and May? Who makes these rules and are we confident that there isn’t a better way?
Like a little kid, one of my favorite questions is “why”. The questions above are great examples of questions I ask myself often. And most recently, I asked if Doane College can graduate a student in less than four years. The answer led me to try and impact our approach to AP tests and dual-credit coursework. Although Doane College is a 4-year traditional college, we are taking steps to think differently. Today, Doane College is rolling out a 3-year graduation program in which certain majors are backed by a 3-year graduation guarantee.
As a quick digression, Doane College has offered a 4-year graduation guarantee for many years. We were one of the first to offer such a guarantee and the first in the state of Nebraska. I believe the 4-year guarantee is a component of our culture and while the 4-year guarantee red-tape can be duplicated almost anywhere, I’m not certain that the culture can. In that same vein, I look at the new 3-year program. This is not rocket science. The academic requirements for graduation have not changed. Instead, we’ve packaged our academic programs with the understanding that a student may choose to accelerate their educational experience. In the event they want to do that, we provide them the road map. But make no mistake; this is not for the faint of heart. Eighteen credits a semester and summer coursework wasn’t in my college plans, but it is for some students today, particularly those that have already taken over 24 college credits while in high school. And by the way, we have a few Doane students graduating in three years without this program.
Now, before even the first faculty member says, “you can’t do that,” I say yes, we can and yes we are. Today, high school students are taking more college level dual-credit courses and AP tests than ever before. And I believe they are doing this because they believe there is a benefit to doing so. They believe they are getting ahead. Moreover, high schools are helping to facilitate programs to encourage more college coursework prior to graduation. But, how many colleges and universities are acknowledging this openly and actually embracing this proactive approach to college? If a first-year college student enrolls with 36 credits, doesn’t it stand to reason that they consider themselves at the sophomore level relative to credits earned? And, furthermore, if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that they need only three more years to graduate in college. If that’s not true, why are we talking about college being four years? Shouldn’t we talk about it being four-and-a-half or five years? (Truthfully, there are colleges that do speak to honest fact that it takes more than four years at their school). Why would high schools encourage their students to do college coursework before high school graduation without some understanding of a benefit?
The four-year model is tried and true and a tough mold to break. But, I believe colleges and universities should embrace the fact that there are quality students working hard in high school with expectations of getting ahead both academically and financially. More importantly, colleges must get in the game and respond appropriately with packaged programming that helps a student to leverage pre-college credit toward an accelerated degree plan. Obviously this assumes that the student wants this. A student could also want to double or triple major. They could want to study abroad. They could want to stop out for a year. All these options are acceptable and may prolong any accelerated program to four years or beyond. That’s not the point. The point is that there are students who want this and their current success in graduating in three years is often predicated on the strong collaboration with a faculty advisor who shepherds the student through any red tape. I vote for making it easier for a student to see these opportunities. Notice I didn’t say make it easier to graduate. In fact, I think it goes without saying that graduating in three years is more rigorous than a four year plan.
A three-year program isn’t a game-changer in higher education. In fact, changing higher education today is difficult and requires patience. But, who doesn’t like to dream? To that end, give some thought to this question. What would you do if you could start your own college and take advantage of all the lessons learned over time? Start fresh! Would you use one-course-at-at-time? Would you use a hybrid approach to online and classroom work? Would your program encompass year-round programming? Would you require an urban plunge or an international experience? Would you require an internship? Would you still require the liberal arts? This all gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. Part of me fears the pace of educational change is impacted more by the inability to insert new ideas into old structure. So, what if you could start over?