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Three-year degree pathways could be ineffective, but help some at UW

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The debate over three-year versus four-year bachelor degree programs is taking center stage following Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-’19 budget proposal. An aspect of this requires the UW System to establish pathways to a three-year degree for 10 percent of programs by Jan.1, 2018 and 60 percent of programs by June 2020.

Student loan debt has become a growing problem nationwide, and Walker’s budget attempts to target this issue in Wisconsin. A report published by The Institute for College Access & Success calculated that, on average, a 2015 graduate of UW System four-year public universities has $26,435 in debt.

Walker’s mandate, if approved, could theoretically save students 25 percent, around $6,600, as well as get them into the workforce a year earlier.

“Graduating in three years gave me a lot of flexibility, both financially and in terms of time to leave undergrad and not feel as much immediate stress that one feels with high student loan payments or having spent so much of their time completing a degree” Julie Goodrich, a UW-Madison graduated in three years with a degree in Legal Studies and Spanish, told The Daily Cardinal.

However, the budget contains no further explanation about the three-year programs or plans for implementation, and many questions remain.

Some have questioned the proposal’s viability at UW-Madison. Engineering, math, computer science, biology, chemistry, physics and other degrees cannot be completed in three years, according to Noel Radomski, director of Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Secondary Education.

“It goes to the quality of the degree program, the accreditation requirements, what employers want from those graduates,” Radomski said. “Also, students who get their degrees in the STEM fields will often go on to get their Masters or PhDs. They have to get a high quality bachelor’s to do that.”

Currently 40 percent of UW-Madison undergraduates receive a STEM degree.

Additionally, the budget does not say whether the three-year plans will decrease the number of required credit hours—they may just encourage enrollment in summer courses to get students through the system faster, Radomski explained.

Across the Big Ten, three-year degree programs are relatively uncommon. They are offered at University of Iowa, Purdue University—where the degrees offered are all humanities-based—and The Ohio State University.

“The three year degree plans are designed for students who come to Iowa with specific goals, have already earned some college credit, or are ready to complete more courses per term than average,” according to the University of Iowa Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

The same applies to Ohio State, where 70 percent of majors offered have an associated three-year plan.

Here, completion in three years depends on freshman passing entrance exams and having AP credits from high school. For a three-year biology degree, a student must come in with 24 credits in specific courses and maintain 15 credit semesters.

Radomski says this puts students from rural or low-income schools at a disadvantage, as they are less likely to offer courses for college credit in high school.

Additionally, the need for previous college credit could mean demographics will play a role in who can benefit from these programs.

According to a 2014 survey by the Department of Education, black and Latino students made up 37 percent of Wisconsin high schools but only 27 percent of students taking an AP class. Without AP and IB credit, Radomski said it could be incredibly difficult for a student to graduate in three years and realize those savings.

Three-year degree programs are often marketed to non-traditional students and veterans because many have work and familial obligations.

Getting done a year earlier would mean less valuable time away from these obligations, according to Sarah Terry, assistant director of Campus Affairs at UW-Milwaukee, a school with a large veterans and service members program.

Additionally, veterans’ educational benefits have time and dollar limits. If able to graduate in three years, remaining benefits could be used for further schooling.

However, “simply being in a program with a sooner end date will not necessarily mean [veterans or current service members] will finish sooner,” Terry said.

Many service members and veterans take longer to complete a degree for the same earlier cited obligations, and sometimes a student is deployed and must restart courses after their return.

For non-traditional students, three-year degree programs may not be a perfect solution either.

“We have lots of people who are part time, or can only afford 6 credits at a time,” Judith Strand, director of Continuing Studies at UW-Madison, said.

The effect three-year degree plans would have on campus culture is unclear, but Radomski thinks it won’t change a thing at UW-Madison. He thinks that even with this option many students will still use fours years to complete a degree

“It’s a four year institution that caters to 18-22 year olds. They will change their minds and want the four years to spend in things like marching band. It’s a time of maturing,” Radomski said.

The governor's office declined to comment. 

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