Different Paths to a College Degree

Online programs, three-year bachelor's degrees, and community colleges offer options in higher ed.

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Unemployment has changed many a kitchen-table conversation about college. One of the best ways to ensure a job is to have a bachelor's degree. But a college education is now more difficult for many families to afford.

That means many students are on the prowl for bargain bachelor's degrees—and some are finding them in nontraditional programs such as three-year bachelor's degree programs, online education, and work colleges.

A degree in three. Over time, Americans have relaxed expectations that students will complete a bachelor's degree in four years. Because of the amount of remedial preparation many incoming college students need and the obstacles most families face in financing four consecutive years of college, many college students now take six years to graduate. "We in higher education have been so focused on that fraction of students not fully prepared to do college work that it seems natural for students to stay on longer than four years," says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. Parents, too, have encouraged students to relish their college years and take maximum advantage of campus opportunities. But "the recession has brought us face to face with a new reality," Broad says.

Broad says she expects dozens of colleges to begin offering some bachelor's degrees in three years. She anticipates that trend to be strongest among private schools, where tuition is highest—more than $25,000 a year, on average.

For three-year degrees to measure up, students must be willing to study year-round and faculties must be prepared to give fast-track students clear and regular counsel. The time is right to offer them this option, Broad says. "There are students who are ready now."

In a stroke of prescience, Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., identified in 2004 a list of 30 bachelor's degrees that could be finished on an accelerated schedule. The university began offering three-year programs in 2005. The list of majors, described as requiring no field experience, includes business, humanities, premed, and predental. Two schools jumping on the bandwagon this fall—the University of Houston-Victoria and Hartwick College in New York—are adding to the three-year buzz.

While others are talking about three-year degrees, Purdue University will be trying out a two-year bachelor's degree program in Kokomo, Ind., this year. The first 25 applicants come from the ranks of jobless autoworkers who are eligible for two years of financial help under the federal Trade Adjustment Act, says Christy Bozic, director of Purdue's College of Technology in Kokomo. The city has been hit hard by layoffs at its four Chrysler factories. In response, the college designed a two-year bachelor's degree in organizational leadership and supervision by cutting the length of courses from 16 weeks to eight. "These students will have the same amount of face time as other undergraduates, the same number of classes, and the same learning outcomes, based on standards set by curriculum committees," Bozic said. "It's going to be a tough program, the same as a full-time job."

Work colleges. An old idea is attracting new interest on seven campuses across the country where students work in return for waivers of tuition, room, board, and fees. That can mean zero debt at a time when the average student leaves campus owing $22,000.

At College of the Ozarks, founded in 1906, students work 15 hours a week during semesters, and many earn their room and board working 40-hour weeks during summers. Their efforts are responsible for police and fire service, housekeeping, a dairy, and other functions on the campus near Branson, Mo. Students also contend with required attendance at chapel services, convocations, and spartan living conditions. Still, applications were up 10 percent this year, says President Jerry C. Davis. That translates to 4,118 applicants for 350 seats in the freshman class. Under college rules, 90 percent of them have to demonstrate financial need.

Berry College in Rome, Ga., operated similarly from its founding in 1902 until the 1960s, when the work requirement was dropped. But three years ago, college leaders decided to rebuild the work program and strengthen its role as a learning tool. Berry has added nine new businesses over the past couple of years, including a consulting group that provides accounting and human resources services. Work college alumni say they appreciate their freedom from debt as much as the job experiences they have received. "I have two siblings who have well over $30,000 in student loans, and they're under a lot of stress in this recession," says Janelle Stolz, a College of the Ozarks grad who teaches fourth grade at Branson Elementary School. Since "I got hired as a teacher, every dollar has gone into my pocket."