Move toward three-year college degree gains momentum

As a teenager, Christina Cruz was so organized that she planned her Sweet 16 party six months in advance.

As a freshman at Florida State University, she arrived with 30 credit hours from dual enrollment and advanced placement courses.

And this month, she graduated from FSU summa cum laude after just 2 1/2 years, thanks to her laser focus and FSU's Degree in Three program, which gave her a special adviser and priority class registration.

"I would definitely recommend it to others who are self-motivated," she says.

With students facing higher tuition and universities coping with tight budgets, some education leaders have urged expanding programs that help students earn a bachelor's degree in three years. This fall, former U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander laid out the case for offering three-year degrees in a cover story for Newsweek.

"Geniuses have always breezed through," wrote Alexander, a Republican senator from Tennessee. Most others take longer. On average, according to the U.S. Department of Education, undergraduates take about 55 months to earn a bachelor's degree.

But helping well-prepared students graduate in three years would save them money and make American universities more competitive globally, Alexander said.

Others prefer a more traditional pace.

"I am not an advocate of rushing through the collegiate years, which are developmental, as a student matures into adulthood," Glen Besterfield, a University of South Florida associate dean in charge of academic success programs for undergraduates, said in an e-mail to the Times.

USF students can graduate a year early in one of two ways: come in with at least 30 credit hours, or take at least 15 hours each semester, plus 10 each summer.

Few USF students do so. Of the 4,028 freshmen who enrolled on the Tampa campus in 2006, only 69 graduated within three years.

FSU created its Degree in Three program in 2001 because more freshmen were arriving on campus with college credits. At one time, they might have come with six, said Linda Mahler, an associate dean in FSU's division of undergraduate studies. Now it's more like 12 or 15.

FSU's program provides students with a special adviser who helps them map out a plan for accelerated learning. It tracks their progress and their grades. And it gives them priority status when registering for classes.

"I think the most valuable thing for them is that personalized program of study," Mahler said. "We want to do this because the students are motivated and they're out trying to do it on their own. We want them to be able to work with people and have a plan."

Enrollment has grown from about 70 a year to 110 this fall.

In Boca Raton, private Lynn University announced its three-year program two weeks before Alexander's essay appeared.

Lynn, a private school with about 2,000 undergraduates, says its three-year program can save students an estimated $45,600 for the fourth year they don't take.

That might cost the university some money, but it could help recruit students, too, said Cynthia Patterson, Lynn's vice president for academic affairs.

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While three-year bachelor's programs remain rare, the universities of Florida, South Florida and Central Florida all have at least one "three plus four" program.

Those programs allow students to enroll as freshmen and start coursework in a professional school, such as a college of medicine or pharmacy, during their fourth year. If they stay on track, they graduate with a bachelor's and a doctorate degree in seven years instead of eight.

At the University of Florida, Alexander's essay came out just before provost Joe Glover gave a speech to UF's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

So Glover made his speech about Alexander's idea, noting that UF made it possible to graduate within three years a long time ago.

"And guess what?" Glover said. "The students don't want to graduate in three years."

More than a third of this year's freshman class enrolled at UF with at least 30 credits and could easily graduate within three years, Glover said. But fewer than 200 students a year do so.

"What's going on?" he said. "Evidently, they don't want to leave that quickly. Maybe they find something rewarding here that keeps them here."

Nor has the idea of a three-year bachelor's degree caught fire at UCF. Instead, the school is phasing out a program that offers to help organized students graduate in four years.

The reason? Lack of interest from students and parents.

As families learn about what the program requires — define a major and take courses in sequence — they often worry it wouldn't leave time for other things: Study abroad. Work outside of class. Internships. Fraternity or sorority membership. A change of mind.

Often, parents say doing what's necessary to graduate in four years would shortchange their children, UCF provost Terry Hickey said.

At FSU, joining and staying in the Degree in Three program is optional.

"If at any point, they decide that they want to stop and smell a few other roses, that's okay," Mahler said.

Cruz, 20, who majored in English and psychology, said she studied a lot, but also took tap, ballet and jazz dance classes, worked in a dorm and counseled students who, like her, were the first in their families to earn a college degree.

Others decided a Degree in Three was not for them.

Lauren Stueve, 21, of Tampa went to FSU with 33 credit hours from her International Baccalaureate studies at Hillsborough High School. She joined the Degree in Three program, but reconsidered for a variety of reasons. She thought about how her Bright Futures scholarship covers four years. She dreamed of studying abroad. She was interested in internships and classes outside her major. She wanted more time to prepare for the Graduate Record Examination.

She even figured that, for her, arranging housing would be easier.

"It just made so many other areas of my life easier not to graduate early," she said.

So she changed her mind and spent the fall in Valencia, Spain, teaching English, music, art and special education classes. She doesn't feel like she's missing anything.

"I wouldn't trade the experience I just had in Spain for anything," she said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Move toward three-year college degree gains momentum 12/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 28, 2009 8:04am]

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