Review of Saving Higher Education: The Integrated, Competency-Based Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree Program

Reviews of Recent Books Concerning Current Issues in Higher Ed: No. 5

Bradley, M. J., R. H. Seidman, and S. R. Painchaud. Saving Higher Edu­cation: The Integrated, Competency-Based Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree Pro­gram. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

This book proposes an idea previously treated at some length by Robert Zemsky in his book Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education (Trenton, NJ: Rutgers U P, 2009). The three-year baccalaureate degree seems to offer a somewhat painless way of mitigating some of the most pressing issues in higher education. It has a clear appeal to many students, politicians, and college and university administrators. But it has also been met with misgivings by a growing number of student advocacy groups, most faculty, and many employers.

The authors developed the program that is the focus of the book at Southern New Hampshire University, and they take great pains to distinguish the “Integrated” program that they developed from the more common “Accelerated” and “Prior Learning” models.

In the “Accelerated” model, students take the same number of course credits, delivered over the same number of contact hours, that they would in a four-year baccalaureate program. But, by scheduling classes in both the daytime and the evenings and on weekends, and by taking a full semester-load during the summers, the students can complete the required work in three, rather than four, years. Since most colleges and universities do not charge, or charge a reduced rate, for credits beyond the designated full-time load, students in the Accelerated Program save considerable money on their tuition and are also able to enter the workforce and to earn incomes that reflect their new credentials one year sooner than their peers. Administrators, who are held to account for graduation rates, tend to like the idea of a program that presumably provides more incentives to graduate in a timely way. On the other hand, critics will quickly point out that the “Accelerated” model requires such an intensive commitment to study that it often exacerbates problems with retention and lowers the graduation rates that it is ostensibly designed to improve.

In contrast, the “Prior Learning” model avoids the compression of the “Accelerated” model by giving course credit for professional experience and “other” education such as training completed in the military or provided by an employer. This model is currently the most popular of the three under discussion, and it has usually been applied to baccalaureate degree in technical disciplines that have traditionally been offered at the associates-degree level. One limitation to this model is that students who do not earn the equivalent of a full year’s course credit for their “prior learning” end up either loading up on courses much like students in the “Accelerated” model or taking at least part of their fourth year to complete the degree. Yet, most commentators seem to accept that such a model may be appropriate for students in those technical disciplines to which it is most often applied.

But, neither of these models has gained broader acceptance across the arts and sciences. Critics argue that students pursuing a baccalaureate degree in the “Accelerated” model will not have adequate time to absorb much of the material in a meaningful way: that is, because education is much more than just content per se, because it is a continuing synthesis of content from which some broader understanding of how topics and disciplines are related gradually emerges, students who are covering material at a breakneck speed are inevitably “learning” less. Indeed, many of the skills and sensibilities most valued by employers—such as written and oral communication skills and a sensitivity to cultural differences.

Likewise, critics argue that, in awarding credit for “competencies,” the “Prior Learning” model inevitably softens the requirements that need to be met to “earn” the degrees. For, whatever subjectivity in evaluation may be apparent across sections of any individual courses or across courses in any individual program, there is inevitably much greater subjectivity involved in the awarding of credit for professional experience and other training.

The authors of this book assert, however, that the “Integrated” model provides a third alternative that avoids the problems associated with the other two models. Certainly, the “Integrated” model requires much more curricular planning and adjustment than either of the other models. For this model presupposes that the courses in a four-year baccalaureate program inevitably cover some of the material redundantly and that a careful analysis of the courses can eliminate the redundancies and thereby permit a streamlining of the courses. In effect, certain “competencies” are measured somewhat apart from other, somewhat streamlined course content. Thus, the students in this type of three-year baccalaureate program earn the same credit hours as those in a four-year program and earn those hours at much the same pace because the number of contact hours can be selectively and precisely reduced from course to course.

The authors argue that the increasing popularity of online education has already eroded traditional definitions of “contact hours” much more than their model might do so. They emphasize that the model has resulted in higher retention rates, higher graduation rates, higher scores on surveys of student satisfaction, and lower student debt than any averages among four-year baccalaureate programs, while also resulting in an equivalent job-placement rate.

Critics of this model have, however, pointed out that some, if not much, of the redundancy that the model eliminates is deliberate and desirable because skills and sensibilities are often developed incrementally across multiple disciplines and various stages in a student’s progress toward a degree. Moreover, presenting a baccalaureate degree that is typically earned over four years for work that is completed over three years narrows the gap between an associates and a baccalaureate degree and decreases the value of the latter.

No one can argue, however, that the intensive curricular review required to develop a program according to the “Integrated” model is not a good thing. But one might argue that such a review could open possibilities for expanding and enriching, rather than streamlining, what is offered course to course within our baccalaureate programs.

Lastly, this book, like Zemsky’s, largely ignores a fourth model that is being adopted more and more widely. In an increasing number of states, including Ohio, above-average students are offered the opportunity to complete the equivalent of one year of college while they are juniors and seniors in high school. They can earn college credits through the longstanding option of advanced-placement courses and through more recently developed options such as dual-enrollment courses, delivered in the high schools and often taught by high school teachers, and programs that allow high school students to attend college campuses at little to no cost. Often through a combination of these options, many high school students are, in effect, already earning up to one-year of college credit before they formally enroll in a college or a university. But the formal adoption of this model as a path to a three-year baccalaureate degree would require participating colleges and universities to insure that they are offering the full first year directly to students still in high school.

But, unless the courses offered to high school students are delivered by college or university faculty, and not high school teachers, critics will argue that the degree requirements have been inevitably softened by the blurring of the distinctions between secondary and post-secondary education. Moreover, there are worrisome implications of colleges and universities undertaking to deliver the courses to the high schools. Presumably such an expansion of our institutions’ missions would necessitate, or in any event inevitably entail, increased reliance on adjunct faculty—compounding concerns about the overall quality of the programs. Likewise, given the fiscal pressures on public K-12 education and the increasingly open and aggressive attempts to provide private and often for-profit alternatives to public education, such a program might compound not just the corporatization of our own institutions but also of the K-12 systems in the communities within our service areas.

Indeed, the most problematic aspect of all of the proposals for three-year baccalaureate degrees may be the recognition that, whatever fine motives might be attributed to the designers of the various models, they all represent a further commodification of higher education. And nothing that has occurred over the last three decades in our institutions suggests that turning education into a commodity is a good thing for educators or for those whom they are educating.

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