Biden administration open to more three-year degree experiments

After accreditor allows tests of shorter bachelor’s degree programmes, officials say they see no federal mandate on time or credit hours

September 19, 2023
Crowds gather on the pier and the beach to watch surfing break the World Guinness Record for most people (66) on a surfboard and the biggest surf board (42 1/4 feet) in Huntington Beach, California to illustrate Biden officials open to more three-year deg
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The Biden administration is signalling its willingness to accept degree programmes with fewer than 120 credits, potentially triggering a rush of consolidations that could further weaken struggling campuses.

The idea hit a milestone this summer with one of the six major US accrediting agencies, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, approving pilot three-year bachelor’s degree programmes at Brigham Young University-Idaho and Ensign College.

The US Department of Education, after allowing prolonged uncertainty over the matter, has now made clear that it sees no basis for interfering with the decision.

“The Department of Education does not regulate the length of a baccalaureate degree programme or set and approve credit hours,” the department told Times Higher Education in responding to a query over its position on the matter.

“Instead,” the department said, “our regulations rely heavily on accrediting agencies and institutions to determine that credit hours appropriately represent a student’s academic work and expect that accrediting agencies ensure their standards and evaluation of credit hours are rigorous to allow the department to sufficiently evaluate institutional practices.”

The norm of four years and 120 credits has a historical basis unrelated to academic merit. Those two numbers have, however, been long-accepted elements of a system through which the federal government recognises accrediting agencies such as the Northwest Commission, which in turn give institutions the approvals needed for benefits that include student aid eligibility.

But with students confronting fast-rising levels of tuition fees and accumulated debt, US institutions have faced constant pressure to make the standard college experience cheaper and faster.

With the Northwest Commission approving the pilot in which three-year degree programmes at BYU-Idaho and Ensign will require only 90 to 96 credits, and with the Biden administration indicating consent, a rush of other accreditors and institutions is likely to follow them, said Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

And while any net benefits to students may take time to assess, the nation’s many struggling colleges and universities – primarily the less-selective public and private campuses – are likely to suffer even more financially, Professor Kelchen said.

“You may get some more students in the door” by reducing their total time of enrolment, he said. “But enough to offset the loss of credit hours? Probably not.”

The effect on students is less clear. The Northwest Commission agreed to try the idea, said its president, Sonny Ramaswamy, with the understanding that BYU-Idaho and Ensign will show comparable student outcomes over time. As part of the pilot programme, which begins this coming April, the measures subject to comparison include course success rates and post-graduation outcomes such as career accomplishments and entry to graduate schools.

Professor Kelchen expressed concern, saying that educational standards may fall as politicians push institutions to follow the lead of BYU-Idaho and Ensign, “sometimes not caring about evidence of success”.

Another of the major accreditors, the New England Commission of Higher Education, earlier this year rejected a request from one of its colleges for permission to try a three-year degree programme. But its president, Lawrence Schall, said that he expects his member institutions to consider its policy on programme length next year at their once-every-five-years “standards review” process, and that likely another institution will try again even before that review is completed.

“Of course there’s trepidation” about moving ahead alone, Dr Ramaswamy said. Yet, he said repeatedly, “the focus really is on outcomes – that is critically important.”

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