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Hopkins professor: Three-year degree programs are not working

Students at Morgan State University. (File Photo)

Students at Morgan State University. A new report suggests that universities will need to build specific programs if they want students to be able to graduate in three years. (File Photo)

A Johns Hopkins University professor gave a failing grade to formal three-year degree programs at colleges and universities as they become a growing alternative for students looking at alleviate the rising cost of college.

The programs fail by cramming a traditional four-year program into three years instead of focusing on offering students a real alternative, said Paul Weinstein, director of Johns Hopkins’ graduate program in public management and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, which released the report.

“I think it’s great that schools are at least recognizing the need to give this as an option,” he said. “But they’re not really creating an option if it’s just shoving everything they require into a three-year period.”

Theoretically, a three-year program should cost 25 percent less than a four-year program because it takes 25 percent less time to complete. But because most current three-year programs just compress four-year requirements into three years, students often have to take summer classes to finish their programs.

Taking courses over the summer and during other short terms limits the amount of savings a student can realize.

Universities could make three-year programs more meaningful by cutting some excesses and refocusing requirements for programs individually, Weinstein said.

His proposals include eliminating study abroad, getting rid of superfluous general education and elective requirements and approving more advanced high school classes for credit.

Tailoring degree programs for specific majors should also include a growing acknowledgement that most students now go on to some sort of graduate education.

“We have to recognize that college is no longer the end of the game,” Weinstein said. “(Graduates) may just be going on for certificates or other types of training. But the reality is, we are in a world now where one’s education can’t stop at 21 or 22.”

But implementing sweeping changes like the ones Weinstein has proposed can be difficult in the orthodox world of higher education. Most schools offer four-year degrees because that is the way it has always been done. So for all majors, requirements will be made to fit that template.

Weinstein’s report found at least 32 universities have implemented formal three-year programs, but just two were founded before 2005.

Harvard University was the first to implement a formal three-year program in 1941. That program began as the United States entered World War II and young men needed to finish their degrees more quickly so they could begin their enlistments.

Globally, students finish their programs faster than the traditional four years in the United States. University students in the United Kingdom, Australia and many European countries often finish their undergraduate work in three years.

To compete, domestic schools should consider how they are offering their programs, Weinstein said.

“I think a lot of people’s knee-jerk reaction is we have the best university system in the world,” he said. “But you don’t remain great without looking at it and revamping and improving.”

Mount St. Mary’s University is the only university listed in the report as having a three-year degree program. But that program is no longer active at the school. Instead, the university supports students who come forward on their own with the intention to graduate in three years.

That is normally about three students per class, the school said.

“Mount St. Mary’s is a small enough university that we are able to work with a limited number of individual students to ensure that they graduate in three years, as long as they plan it out with the provost’s office in their first year,” a university spokeswoman said. “These students typically come in with a number of college credits that they have earned in high school and then they often need to take some summertime classes.”

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