Different Paths to a College Degree

Online programs and community colleges offer options and innovation in higher education.


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 a bargain bachelor's degree—and some are finding the opportunity in nontraditional programs such as three-year degree programs, online education, and work colleges. 

Fast track. Over time, Americans have re­laxed their 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 families face in financing four consecutive years of col­lege, many 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, adding that she expects dozens of colleges to begin offering some three-year bachelor's degrees. 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 faculty members must be prepared to give fast-track students clear and regular counsel. The time is right to offer this option, Broad says. "There are stu­dents who are ready now." 

In 2004, Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., identified a list of 30 bachelor's degrees that could be finished on an accelerated schedule. It began offering three-year programs in 2005. Majors include studies in business and the humanities as well as premed and predental. The University of Hous­ton-Victoria and Hartwick College in New York jumped on the bandwagon last fall, adding to the buzz. 

Meanwhile, Purdue University is trying out a two-year bachelor's degree. The first 25 applicants last year were jobless autoworkers eligible for two years of financial help under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, says Christy Bozic, director of Purdue's College of Technology in Kokomo, Ind., a city 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 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 as the program was getting underway. Although some of the students have been called back to work, the program will continue into the second year. 

Work your way. 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 graduates with loans leave campus owing an average of about $23,200. At College of the Ozarks, students work 15 hours a week during semesters, and many earn room and board working 40-hour weeks during summers. They are responsible for police and fire service, house­keeping, a dairy, and other functions on the campus near Branson, Mo. Students also must attend chapel services and convocations, and have spartan living con­ditions. Still, applications were up 8 percent this year, according to college officials. That translates to 4,435 applicants for 300 seats in the freshman class. The college requires that 90 percent of students demonstrate financial need. 

Work college alum­ni say they appreciate their freedom from debt as much as the job experience they obtained. "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 Carter, a College of the Ozarks grad who teaches fourth grade at Branson Elementary School.