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The 13th Year: accelerated associate degree programs

Accelerating the pace of higher education seems to be a recurring theme. Traditional post-secondary education in the United States revolves around a 2-year or 4-year process. As many colleges and universities have discovered, this doesn’t always sit well with students. That’s why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is underwriting a $2.1M grant program to examine ways that schools in 12 states can offer accelerated associate degree programs.

By looking at the overall two-year graduation rate of the nation’s community colleges, you would not think that graduating on time (or even early) is a priority for most students. Fewer than 15% of students who seek an associate degree finish it within two calendar years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, less than 30% of students finish an associate degree at a public institution within 3 years. The graduation rate for students seeking associate degrees at private, for-profit schools was about twice that.

Private, for-profit schools aren’t better, per se, at educating students, but they are better at graduating them. The reason likely boils down to money: the more classes a student takes, the more money the school makes. So, offering classes at a more leisurely pace – common at public institutions – works against both students and schools alike. Students at community colleges are more likely to feel pressure to get into the workforce quickly.

In response to this, some community colleges (like WCC) have turned to offering certificates instead of degrees. While students can finish certificates in less than a year, shortened programs also tend to leave students short on what they need to know to be successful (and increase their earnings) in the workforce.

Accelerated associate degrees can increase workforce readiness

Private, for-profit schools accelerate their program delivery to allow students to complete an associate degree program in two years or less. That’s not to say the private, for-profit model is superior. Often, the educational quality is suspect, the degrees are expensive, and the credits are non-transferable.

Further, for-profit schools are notorious for being financially unstable. Because they’re virtually 100% dependent on Title IV funds, running afoul of the Department of Education usually means closure.

The grants from the Gates Foundation will “scale” existing fast-track programs to help other community colleges offer accelerated associate degree programs. Many of the programs rely on dual-enrolled students, who take high school and college classes together. Additionally, the grants will help connect employers, community organizations and educational leaders to expand college opportunities.

Accelerating associate degree programs may be a practical way to attract, retain and graduate students cost-effectively. Increasing the graduation rate while decreasing the time needed to complete a degree could benefit students, employers, and local communities.

Photo Credit: Universityof Hawai’i News , via Flickr