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Does UMass's three-year degree proposal miss the point?

Posted by Jesse Singal  September 27, 2010 12:45 PM

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umassamherst.jpgTracy Jan reported today that UMass Amherst is introducing a plan to help students graduate in just three years.

This is a controversial idea in education policy circles, so I emailed Ben Miller, a policy analyst at Education Sector, to ask what he thought.

He wasn't particularly enamored:

Offering bachelor’s degrees in three years might be the most bipartisan idea in higher education reform today, with a sitting Republican senator, former Democratic governor, and a high-profile former college president all coming out in favor of the idea. Too bad then that it’s the search for a free lunch that doesn’t exist, a foolish gambit that fails to recognize the reality of American higher education today.

The fact is, just 36 percent of students nationally and 49 percent of students at UMass Amherst earn a bachelor’s degree within four years; after eight years—double the expected college experience—the graduation rate rises to just 61 percent (68 percent for UMass). And that’s for full-time students attending college for the first time—those figures don’t even include the significant and growing group of students who attend part-time and must balance work, family, and college.

If the majority of students can’t even earn a degree in four years, why should we treat something even shorter as a better solution?

Rather than helping students save a year’s tuition by graduating in three years, how about focusing on the students who pay for college two, three, even sometimes four years longer than expected? That would mean finding ways to offer enough seats in required classes every semester so that students don’t have to wait to complete their prerequisites, setting up an actual credit transfer system so students don’t have to repeat several courses if they change schools, and providing better advising and support systems to help students when they exhibit early signs of dropping out or failing courses, not waiting until it’s too late.

Any one of those ideas would be a better investment then focusing on helping the select few who might be able to finish early and probably already had the wherewithal to do so.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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