Anna Jones is a sophomore at Kent State University’s Stark campus – but she graduated high school just last June. She’s been on the fast-track to get her bachelor’s degree in early education, earning 24 college credits while still in high school. She says a three-year college degree is doable.
Jones: "If you can put your mind to it and do it, you can get done without a problem in three years. Cuz I pay for college by myself and I know there are a lot of people in that same boat."
Jones is the type of student Governor John Kasich had in mind when he proposed his three-year degree plan. The proposal calls for the state’s public universities to develop accelerated degree paths for 10-percent of their programs by next year – and 60-percent of programs by 2014. Holly Hollingsworth with the Ohio Board of Regents says students would complete the same 120-credit hour bachelor’s degree by taking more credit hours each semester and by taking summer courses. And only for majors that can fit that mold.
Hollingsworth: "If you decide that you are the ambitious student that wants to try to accomplish this degree in three years, you are not just trying to figure that out by yourself, you’ve got a plan to go by."
There are already options for Ohio students who want to finish their college degrees early. They include the Seniors to Sophomores program and high-school advanced placement courses. Anna Jones took advantage of the post-secondary education program at Manchester High School. In such programs throughout the state, students split their time between high school and college classrooms. And for most, it’s entirely free – even the cost of textbooks. But Jones says it’s not for everyone.
Jones: "Junior year I actually had to take night classes so I was at school until 9:30, I was at high school and then I would leave and go to work, and then I would come here."
GlenOak High School senior Kavitha Bagavandoss is in her second year of the post-secondary program at Kent State University Stark. She has accumulated 19 credit hours in courses like math and English. But her goals are slightly different than Jones'.
Bagavandoss: "I mostly just wanted the experience of being in college; it’s definitely an eye-opener when you come to college. I feel likenext year when I come to college I won’t have that whole freshman crisis breakdown."
Even with their fast-tracked degree programs, both Jones and Bagavandoss do not plan to graduate in three years. Jones just learned about a study-abroad program in Italy that she’s applying for next year. And Bagavandoss says the thought of completing her degree in economics and mathematics by the time she’s 20 is overwhelming. Bagavandoss, who will attend Kent State’s main campus next year, plans to slow down.
Bagavandoss: "I was actually thinking about taking some this summer, but then I thought about it and I was like, I don’t know how far I want to get ahead, I don’t think I’m ready to graduate in three years, it’s scary. Three years, it seems like a long time but when you think about it, not really."
About two-dozen public and private universities nationwide offer a formal three-year option. So far, they’re pretty sparingly used. At Upper Iowa University, only five students signed up for the program that’s been in place for about five years, and none finished in three years. Many professors in Ohio say that’s because the goal is unrealistic for most students. Kara Robinson is president of the Kent State University tenured-track faculty union. She says more students today have to work part- or even full-time jobs to cover the cost of college.
Robinson: "It might be easier for a student to complete a degree in three years if financial support for those students were increased to encourage them, to make it easier for them to not have to work and take time away from their degree."
Kent State English professor Tracey Laux says the Kasich administration should instead work to make college more affordable, rather than order universities to do something they’re already doing.
Laux: "The blanket statement of 'we need more degrees completed in three years,' to me, shows a lack of understanding of higher education. We have ongoing projects of expediting things, of cutting out any additional requirements that might prolong the time it takes to get a degree."
However, the Kasich administration says universities wouldn’t be required to reinvent the wheel. Board of Regents’ Holly Hollingsworth says schools themselves would develop their own plans – which could include expanding current options.
Hollingsworth: "There’s every chance that those existing programs, dual enrollment, post-secondary enrollment, advanced placement exams, these may be a part of the three-year degree plan that the university articulates for the student."
The University of Massachusetts-Amherst began what it calls a three-year “pathway” for about eight majors this past year, similar to Governor Kasich’s proposal. UMass provost James Staros says it’s aimed toward focused students who know what they want they want to do.
Staros: "We observed that a very small number of students were finding these pathways on their own. We polled departments and asked them would they be willing to cooperate on advising materials of their major in a shorter period of time."
But many professors in Ohio say student-demand for three-year degrees isn’t high enough to make that a priority in higher education reform. Cleveland State University English professor Jeff Karem says many of his students attend college part-time while they work, and don’t live on campus.
Karem: " I don’t really see students themselves wanting to rush out of that experience. I’ve never had a single student propose this to me on their wish list and I’ve certainly in my advising years heard many wishes from students."
Even the state’s private universities, not included in Kasich’s plan, say three-year degrees are not ideal. Oberlin College was in the national spotlight in 2001 when then-president Fredrick Starr wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times pushing three-year degrees as way to ease rising tuition costs. Oberlin never took up his idea. Professor Marc Blecher says today’s job market considers life experiences as important as completing a degree.
Blecher: "Increasingly, employers don’t want somebody who’s been locked up in a classroom for three years grinding out their credit hours to get out fast and save the governor’s budget money. Increasingly they want student with real-world education – that’s what they want to see."
Kent State University student Brandon Davis agrees. Davis is in his sixth year of college and will complete his bachelor’s degree next year. He’s had to support himself, sometimes with two or more jobs, while going to school. But he says all of his job experience, even if it’s unrelated to his major, builds character.
Davis: "Some days I think I could almost have a doctorate in seven years. And that might be an important thing. If a boss interviews two people and one person says three years and one person says six, that boss might think, well this person might be a better employee."
Individual students face issues beyond economics and academics when it comes to how long they take – and should take – to get a degree. Beth Houseman of Akron got her own degree in three years, back in the early 80’s. But she’s not pushing that with any of her own children, a senior in High School and a senior in college.
Houseman: "Not all 18-year olds, and certainly mine, were in the position to understand what all the opportunities were in terms of courses of study and careers. If [my daughter] decided four years was the way she wanted to go, that that was fine with me and that I would actually prefer her to take that time. Everyone is different in what they need."
The three-year degree is just one part of Gov. Kasich’s two-year budget proposal. He also wants to eliminate funding for some specialized academic programs, continue a cap on tuition and fees, and force universities to come up with more efficiencies through cooperation. The budget must be in place by July 1st.