College campus crowded with multiple people

Accreditors approve historic shortened bachelor’s degrees in the US

In much of Europe, India, Australia and New Zealand, three-year undergraduate degrees are standard. Now, a US college accrediting body is allowing Brigham Young University in Idaho and affiliated Ensign College to offer shorter programs that require fewer credits.

The World

In a massive shift for higher education in the US, historic, reduced-credit, three-year bachelor’s degrees have won approval from accreditors.

This newly sanctioned pilot program doesn’t cram four years of school into a shorter time period. Several schools have done that. This is different. 

Instead of 120 credits, students will only need about 90 to graduate. Those pushing for the change say it will make college more accessible and affordable.

“A lot of people in this country have started an education and stopped,” said Boyd Baggett, the director of accreditation at Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYUI). “It's just too far of a reach, too expensive.”

Baggett’s campus won approval for a shortened online bachelor’s degree along with Ensign College, another school in the BYUI system.

“We’ve been following, trying to cut down on the time a student is in college … for a long time,” Baggett said.

BYUI pursued this initiative because of the needs of its student population. Baggett said their average online student is in their 30s, working full time and caring for a family.

“When they get done with … all of the required general education requirements, then there's 20 or 30 credits left, and we say, ‘Take any class you want,’” Baggett said. “How do you say that to a working father or mother [who’s] trying to put food on the table?”

More than half of the students enrolling in this new, shorter program are also international students. In fact, Baggett’s team looked abroad for inspiration as they designed their program. In places like the UK and Germany, many students focus on their area of study in high school so they get a jump-start.

“Once they decide on something, a discipline, then, there's a path through it,” Baggett said. “Not 40 paths through it.”

Sonny Ramaswamy is the president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the accreditation board that approved the pilot.

“This is an innovation that I think – its time has come,” he said.

Ramaswamy is well aware of how historic this decision was.

“This conversation has been going on for some time,” he said. “Do we really need students to sit on their — pardon me, butts — in the classroom … for four years? Or should it be based on learning outcomes?”

The accreditation committee went through about a year and a half of vetting, talking with federal and state regulators to ensure they were missing no statutory requirements.

“They do not say, ‘Thou shalt have a four-year degree,’” Ramaswamy said.

However, administrators have not worked out all the kinks. One of the biggest concerns is whether other universities will accept a three-year degree. Because they are not seen as equivalent, many US graduate programs require applicants from countries like Germany and France to take additional courses in order to qualify.

Robert Zemsky, professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, believes problems such as these aren’t insurmountable. He said what’s important is that future education models address what keeps students from going to college in the first place.

“Accreditors actually know better than most people that higher ed is in trouble today,” Zemsky said. “And that they need this kind of revitalization, or it isn't going to work in the long run.”

As students see the soaring cost of tuition and debt they have to carry for decades, Zemsky said they are rethinking the necessity of a college degree. A shorter option could mean a new life for higher ed.

“My bet is if we get this to work, by 10 years, almost every college degree in America will be a three-year degree,” he said.

There’s a fight ahead for many schools to win approval, but Zemsky thinks that higher education is ready.

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