Posting #934, The Buzz and Spin on 3-Year Degrees, talked about the renewed interest in 3-year degrees (Jaschik, 2009). Saving 25% of college costs is something that is understandably appealing to many, including students, parents and the US Congress. Happily, there exists a good example of a long-running very successful 3-year degree program proving that a high-quality university education can be delivered without any diminution of academic content. The posting below describes this program at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, New Hampshire. It is by Robert H. Seidman, executive editor of the Journal of Educational Computing Research and a professor in the Computer Information Technology Department at SNHU.
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Highly Successful 3-Year Degree Program Graduates 10th Class in May 2009
In May, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) graduated its 10th class of 3-year degree business administration majors. Research has shown that SNHU's 3-year students' academic achievement level is at least as high as their 4-year counterparts (Seidman & Bradley, 2002). Graduates of the program are highly successful in the job market and many decide to take a fourth year to complete a graduate degree. It comes as no surprise that SNHU is considering 3-year programs for other majors.
SNHU completely redesigned its 4-year business administration major so that it could be delivered in six semesters instead of eight. No summer-school or inter-sessions are needed. This competency and outcomes-based 120 credit honors program has proven to be very attractive especially since it lowers the cost of a university education by 25% (SNHU, 2009).
Over the past ten years, the 1st to 2nd year average retention rate is 91% (71% is the national average). The on-time graduating rate average is 75% (45% is national 4-year degree average). Despite attending for only three years, these students are fully integrated into the university community and have high levels of participation and leadership roles in student government, clubs, intramural & NCAA Division II athletics.
SNHU 3-YEAR PROGRAM FEATURES
Here are some program features to demonstrate that well-designed 3-year programs can work and do not have to short-change students nor ignore important parts of their undergraduate curriculum.
(1) SNHU 3-year program is competency-based and outcomes oriented. Competency mastery is continuously tracked and assessed. The program is not seat-time bound. For example, public speaking instruction is built into all Year-One 3-year degree courses. Therefore it is not necessary for these students to take the separate 3-credit Public Speaking course that all four year students must take. 3-year students are awarded the three public speaking credits at the end of their first year. The university's accrediting agencies are completely supportive of this approach.
The 3-year degree competencies are the same for School of Business 4-year students: communication; information technology; problem solving; teamwork; analytical skills; global orientation; legal & ethical practices; research; strategic approaches; leadership. These general competencies are made specific in a formal academic plan attached to each of the courses that include expected outcomes, assessment strategies and pedagogical approaches.
(2) Cohorts of 30 students. Year-One, Year-Two and Year-Three students move through the program in learning communities so that they take almost all of their classes together in two sections of 15 students each. The sections are remixed at the start of each semester.
(3) Active teaching and learning. The program uses the distinctions that Barr and Tagg (1995) make between "instruction" and "learning" paradigms. For example, instructors are considered primarily as "designers of learning methods and environments" rather than primarily as "lecturers." Also, the academic degree "equals demonstrated knowledge and skill" rather than "accumulated credit hours." Students are highly engaged and are held responsible for mastering program competencies. They are taught to be managers of and responsible for their own education.
(4) Computer technology. Technology is integrated into the entire program to facilitate and advance the learning process. From the very first year of the program students used their own laptop computers to participate in web-based virtual classrooms in all of their courses. Thus, their educational experiences extend well beyond their face-to-face classes.
(5) All teaching faculty meet together regularly. Faculty members participate in their own learning community. Highly involved as a group, faculty meet together on a regular basis to discuss student progress and to coordinate joint projects and assignments. For example, during the first semester freshman year, the Information Technology, English, Marketing, and Organizational Leadership teachers meet together biweekly. Mutually reinforced, highly integrated and purposeful coordinated activities are woven throughout the overall curriculum.
Faculty collaboration and student collaboration, along with student competency achievement, are hallmarks of the program. All faculty members participating in the program are considered part of a larger team and remain so during the entire academic year. Faculty members serve as resources and consultants for fellow instructors and for all students in the program.
(6) Unnecessary redundancy and overlap eliminated. Redundancy and overlap were eliminated in a process that involved almost the entire university faculty in 1995-96. Each existing course in the 4-year program was taken apart topic-by-topic and then reconstructed on a competency framework with distinctions made between initiating, reinforcing, and mastery topic levels. One example of unnecessary redundancy was that Maslow's hierarchy of needs was taught at the initiating level seven times in the students' curriculum. Academic experiences are now sequenced so that foundations for competencies are acquired and built upon in a timely and efficient manner.
(7) Student workgroups. The program is heavily group-oriented and computer technology effortlessly extends the classroom walls. Not only do students move through the program as a learning community, but students easily operate in workgroups in-class, outside of class, and during their culminating end-of-semester Integrating Experiences (see #8, below).
(8) Focused Integrating Experiences. Competencies are reinforced, expanded and reflected in a multitude of innovative and diverse academic experiences such as the creation and management of a company in Year-Three of the program and week-long Integrating Experiences during the last week of each semester in Year-One and Year-Two.
End-of-Semester Week-long: These one-week long Integrating Experiences are carefully designed to help students synthesize course material, reinforce knowledge and skills, and understand the relevance and relatedness of their studies in the program. The Experiences consist of case studies that student teams take on.
During the weeklong Experience, teams research the case, plan and design a multimedia presentation to the faculty. These presentations address the questions and directives given to the students by the faculty. Students earn 1.5 credits each semester in Year-One and Year-Two toward their 120 credit total.
Year-long: The Year-Three Integrating Experience takes the entire academic year. Students run a consulting company, New Paradigm Design, where teams take on real world projects for a wide variety of not-for-profit organizations. Students earn 9 credits toward their 120 credit total.
During the week-long Integrating Experience and during the year-long consulting company activities, faculty members act as consultants and are available to meet with teams both face-to-face and virtually through the online web-based virtual classroom environment.
The Integrating Experience and New Paradigm Design have proven to be powerful and comprehensive learning experiences for the students. Students get to experience the benefits and practical applications of their curriculum firsthand. The curriculum takes on life and becomes even more meaningful for the learners. The Integrating Experience and running the company also provide forums for faculty and students to share, discuss, debate, and advance student competency mastery. This level of faculty involvement has led to many conversations across disciplines including ways that this model might be integrated into the entire university.
3-YEAR LEARNING COMMUNITY JOYS OF TEACHING
Teaching in this 3-year program for the past 13 years has been a very rewarding experience for me. Not just because of the curriculum and the students - although those alone would certainly be enough. The extra added reward for me is the collaboration and cooperation between faculty colleagues from disparate disciplines. In academe, it's not very often that published poets and computer professors get to talk on a bi-weekly basis about the efficacy of curricula, share course content, and create joint assignments for students they have in common.
Robert H. Seidman, Ph.D.
Southern New Hampshire University
Barr, R.B., and Tagg, J. (1995, Nov/Dec). From teaching to learning: a new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 13-25.
Jaschik, S. (2009, Feb. 17). The Buzz and Spin on 3-Year Degrees. INSIDE HIGHER ED. Retrieved April 16, 2009, from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/02/17/three
Reis, R. (2009, March 31). The Buzz and Spin on 3-Year Degrees. Message #934 posted to Tomorrow's Professor Blog http://amps-tools.mit.edu/tomprofblog/archives/2009/03/934_the_buzz_an.html#more [reprint of Jaschik (2009).]
Seidman, R. & Bradley, M. (2002). A Collaborative & Competency-based Three-Year Bachelor's Degree: Empirical Results. AERA Annual Meeting - New Orleans, Division J - Faculty and the Curriculum: Institutional and State Policy Issues and Implications. ERIC: ED481060.
SNHU (2009). Southern New Hampshire University 3-Year Honors Degree Program. Retrieved April 16, 2009, from http://www.snhu.edu/2220.asp