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Community colleges may soon face more competition

Last week, I wrote about the growing pressure on universities to fill brand new student housing projects. Colleges and universities are borrowing tens of millions of dollars to buy, build and replace campus housing. At the same time, private developers are racing to erect luxury student housing around the country. In the next decade, developers will add nearly three-quarters of a million new beds on and near US campuses. Community colleges are shaping up to be ripe targets for luring students away.

Very soon, two year schools will have another lure to contend with: the three-year bachelor’s degree. Accelerated degree programs aren’t new. Universities have offered them for years. But those programs typically involve cramming 120 or more credits into three years. Students in these programs take 16-18 credits per semester, as well as classes in the spring/summer semesters.

On the whole, these accelerated programs aren’t terribly successful. Most students who enter an accelerated program don’t actually graduate in three years. Not being able to complete 40+ credits per academic year negates the benefits of the accelerated bachelor’s degree altogether. The premise is that completing the degree in three years instead of four will reduce the student’s acquisition costs. Colleges and universities typically set tuition only once per year. Cramming more credits into one year enables students to limit their exposure to tuition increases.

But a three-year bachelor’s degree isn’t the same thing as an accelerated degree program. An accelerated degree program still requires the student to complete 120+ credits. A three-year bachelor’s degree program may only consist of 90 credits. That approach allows the student to work at a slower pace and complete a full credential in just three years.

Community colleges would be the target for three-year degree programs

A three-year bachelor’s degree program may be exceptionally interesting to students who plan to complete two years at a community college and transfer to a four-year institution. A three-year degree program would eliminate the omnipresent struggle to recognize and properly account for transfer credits. (When a student starts and finishes a degree program at one university, the credit transfer troubles go away.)

Three year degree programs could apply to high-impact, high-earning programs like nursing, engineering, business, and computer science programs. Demand for educated employees are all high in these fields. And a three-year bachelor’s degree program allows colleges and universities to redesign academic programs from the ground up.

The 120-credit, standard bachelor’s degree program is something of a 19th century throwback, compliments of the Carnegie Foundation. The Carnegie Foundation pegged funding of professorial pensions to a somewhat arbitrary 120-credit, institutional qualification requirement. Institutions that did not offer bachelor’s degrees of at least 120 credits could not get the Carnegie Foundation pension grant funding.) The Carnegie Foundation funding for teacher pensions evaporated long ago, but the 120-credit bachelor’s degree stuck.

If the 90-credit bachelor’s degree takes off, community colleges could find themselves in a difficult spot. 90-credit bachelor’s degrees will be less expensive and more focused on major courses than a standard degree does. The three-year degree program is in the examination stage, so it’s theoretical for now.

Accreditation organizations won’t have a problem with 90-credit bachelor’s degrees, at least for a little while. Most accreditors permit time-limited variations from established degree-granting standards for the purposes of research and evaluation.

The three-year bachelor’s degree program is yet another reason for community colleges to add more value to their two-year degrees. Soon, community colleges may be competing directly with four-year schools to capture fast-start degree seekers.

Photo Credit: Pea Chesh , via Flickr