Education

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

More and more people are going to college to burnish their job credentials in the tough economy. That's leading to questions as to whether schools should reduce the time it takes to get a degree, say, three years instead of four.

Ohio Governor John Kasich has urged universities in his state to investigate ways for students to get a bachelors degree in just three years.

And NPR's Larry Abramson tells us more.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Kasich's proposal is one of a number of measures he's pushing to cut the cost of higher education, including a limit on tuition increases. He also says faculty members should spend more of their time teaching.

Matt Mayer of the Buckeye Institute, a free-market think tank, says a three-year degree would help make higher ed more efficient.

Mr. MATT MAYER (Buckeye Institute): If we really kind of strip down higher ed and the four-year degree down to a really rigorous three-year process, for many kids that would be a great road, get their skills, get their knowledge base, graduate and then become productive members of society.

ABRAMSON: The idea is that students spend less time paying tuition and more time working. The challenge is doing that without watering down the degree. Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, has had a degree in 3 program since 2005. University Vice President Tom Taylor says the program appeals to students who are willing to go to school year round.

Mr. TOM TAYLOR (Vice President Ball State University): Students are utilizing summers to take full loads - two, in some cases three, summers - depending on the academic program.

ABRAMSON: Students have to pay for those summer courses, so in the end, they only save a few hundred dollars off of a $26,000 tuition bill for the degree.

There is a demand for this kind of program, but it's limited. Only 25 or so students a year sign up for degree in 3 at Ball State. Tom Taylor says the program only attracts students who already know what they want to do.

Mr. TAYLOR: Students are very focused on their both academic and career choices.

ABRAMSON: But maybe more students would sign up if a school offered a degree you could really do in three years without summer school. That could lead to a real savings, since students would only pay three years of tuition.

Well, Baldwin-Wallace College, a liberal arts school outside of Cleveland, is working on a true three-year degree, according to Associate Vice President Jim McCargar.

Mr. JIM McCARGAR (Associate Vice President, Baldwin-Wallace College): We think that this would be better in a time of real economic challenge for students and their families. This would reduce the cost of attendance for this particular program at Baldwin-Wallace by 25 percent.

ABRAMSON: Baldwin-Wallace is starting out slowly. The school wants to offer its degree in communications disorders in this accelerated version. McCargar says required courses in the major would not change, but some of the electives would disappear. The state board of regents would have to approve this low-fat degree and so would the Higher Learning Commission, the school's accrediting body.

Judging by the reaction of commission president Sylvia Manning, that's not going to happen anytime soon.

Mr. SYLVIA MANNING (President, Higher Learning Commission): There might be some utility in a three-year degree. I just don't think we should call it a bachelor's degree any more than I think we should call it a master's degree.

ABRAMSON: Manning says she hasn't seen the Baldwin-Wallace request, but she says there is good reason to protect the sanctity of the four-year experience.

Other countries, particularly in the British Commonwealth, offer regular degrees after three years and honors degrees to top students after a fourth year. The toughest part of switching to this model is that so many American students need remedial work when they get to college.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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