Higher Education Strategy Associates

Compressing to Three

As we noted yesterday, there are four ways to go about getting university degrees from four years to three. One, cutting grad requirements from 120 to 90 credits, isn’t serious. A second, upping the use of prior learning assessment (or, in extremis, bringing back grade 13), is barely half-serious. That leaves curriculum compression and curriculum re-design.

Curriculum compression is the significantly easier path. No need to change anything other than the speed of students’ path through the system. By getting them to take more summer courses and six courses per term rather than five, they’ll get through that much quicker, saving everyone money.

That’s the theory, anyway. What about in practice? Well, to start with, it’s really not clear that students are interested in this concept. Students can already take six credits a term and take summer credits; they simply choose not to do so. In fact, they are far more likely to extend their programs for four years to five rather than shorten them to three.

There are some pretty basic reasons for this. Students tend to prefer work over school during the summer because they need money. Summer income accounts for something like 65% of all student income, and for a substantial portion of students, it’s their only income. A large number of others prefer to take reduced course loads in order to better balance part-time work with their studies: it’s a lot easier to get four A’s working fifteen hours a week than it is to get five, so students adjust their schedules accordingly. Getting these students to go from four to five classes – let alone six – requires money, and lots of it. They would need to be compensated for lost income, much of which would need to come as grants rather than loans in order to be effective.

How would faster completion save money, then? To some degree at least, student costs align with courses taken rather than time-on-campus; if the number of courses required to get to 120 credits isn’t reduced, it’s not clear how much costs would actually be reduced, other than by increasing class sizes. Come to think of it, this is actually the only way that compression can save cash. Kicking student load up from five courses to six while keeping professor contact hours constant would increase the ratio of outputs to inputs (i.e., “productivity”) by twenty percent. Assuming, that is, that your classrooms are big enough to handle the overflow.

Ceteris paribus, that might save a few hundred million in costs – but that money would almost certainly be consumed by the required increases in student aid. Is that really what the Minister had in mind?

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2 Responses to Compressing to Three

  1. The advantage of the 3 year degree option is that students can graduate sooner without taking an overwhelming course load. With a degree in hand, they can be more mobile if desired or required, they can look for a full-time job and if they are interested at a later date, return to university to upgrade their degree to a four year. They can upgrade taking courses on a part-time basis while working full-time which would enable them to pay their tuition.

    Also, in some universities, learners with significant learning through informal and non-formal education, work and life experiences have the option of prior learning assessment and recognition. This is where learners identify, demonstrate and gain recognition for what they already know and can do. Recognizing learning acquired outside of a university would expedite the completion of a degree, saving time, effort and money.

  2. Pingback: Re-designing to Three | HESA

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