Here’s a proposal for eliminating debt from student loans for college: a zero-year degree.
No such degree actually exists. The preposterous-sounding notion is mentioned in an article in Business Week about President Barack Obama’s recently announced plan to “shake up” higher education, including his suggestion that law school should take two instead of three years. Speaking at a town hall-style meeting at Binghamton University in New York, Obama surprised the audience by saying that, after two years of classroom learning, “students in their third year would be better off clerking or practicing in a firm even if they weren’t getting paid that much, but that step alone would reduce the costs for the student.”
Others have proposed that college last for only three years to save undergraduates not only money but time. In some cases, college students with enough credit from taking high school Advanced Placement courses and/or some community college courses can already graduate in fewer than four years from college.
A few schools, including the University of Houston-Victoria, St. John’s University and Grace College and Seminary in Indiana have created actual “degree in three” programs. To complete all their requirements, students in Grace College’s program take more courses in the fall and spring semesters as well as courses in the summer. Grace College contends that this “plan can save students up to 50 percent on college, between costs they don’t pay and salaries they could begin to earn a year early.”
Costs are the main reason behind efforts to shorten the time it takes to earn a college degree. Students still have to earn, and pay for, sufficient amounts of course credit. Savings come from not having to pay for four years of (if a student lives on-campus) room and board and other fees.
The notion of zero-year-degree rests on developments in online education and specifically regarding MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Some universities like San Jose State have been experimenting with having students take MOOCs for credit; the results (as far as student performance) have so far been mixed.
Georgia Institute of Technology has started to offer a masters degree in computer science via MOOCs, for the relatively low fee of $6,600 — in comparison to about $45,000 in tuition alone for out-of-state students enrolled in the traditional on-campus computer science master’s degree and $21,000 for Georgia residents.
As MOOCs are (for the time being) free and a student can complete coursework whenever they wish — when not working, for instance, or (if they are parents) when their children are occupied — it is possible that someone could earn a degree in zero years, in the sense that they wouldn’t have to stop working or otherwise change their life to acquire a college degree.
Such an idea has its appeal as well as numerous limitations. For a start, switching to a two-or-three year degree option would be most highly impractical for most schools as this would require a major revamping of curriculum, faculty teaching loads and other resources. It would certainly affect how financial aid is delivered and a university’s own finances.
At least 60 percent of college students need at least an extra semester to complete their degree. For such students, taking more courses in a shorter space of time might not simply be doable. Conversely, some students could very well benefit from the flexibility of online courses. Rather than take five, six or more years to earn a degree at a “bricks and mortar” campus, they could study at their own pace and (virtually) attend class at the times (not early in morning, perhaps) they’re most ready to learn.
Tuitions, loans and debt are topics one routinely hears about when a college education is mentioned. A zero-year-degree at a low cost is likely to remain a matter of speculation. The fact that we are even talking about it suggests how frustrated many feel about the current state of things for recent college grads and the need for serious innovations in higher education.
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