Universities should provide quality education options

By Earl D. Brooks II, Ph.D.
President, Trine University

President Earl Brooks

One certainty about the future is change. The common phrase of "This is the way we′ve always done it" paralyzes and limits discussion of alternatives to make education more flexible and affordable. So why are we so grounded in traditional models of delivery? For example, why do we go to college for four years, take summer vacations and then earn a college degree? In my years in higher education, no one can supply an adequate answer. Some suggest the four–year system dates back to the first universities in Europe and the Middle East. Most scholars agree that summers were considered a time for harvesting crops, a job that only affects a small percentage of the population today.

More universities are beginning to examine flexible education models to respond to the needs of today′s students and industry. As federal and state funding for education declines, tuition costs rise, family structure changes and technological advancements are made, more people are beginning to question the validity and need for a four–year education. They aren′t questioning the need for an education – only why it has to take that long and with curriculums that support an often unnoticed growing number of credits.

A 2009 Boston Globe article, The Four–Year College Myth, states "Census data from 2005 tell us that only 28 percent of American adults have a bachelor′s degree. As for how many adults took the 'traditional' path and received their BA within four years of high school, some rough number crunching of federal education data shows that the percentage dips to below 10 percent."

The four–year graduation rate is higher at private colleges than public colleges, but the majority of the population goes to public schools. So, we must look at our education model – or rather system – and ask how we can transform it to better meet the needs of students, industry and communities. If only a quarter of Americans have bachelor′s degree and only 10 percent did that in the idealistic four years after high school graduation, something is not right.

The idea of spending four years in school is now outdated. If you look at the American education system, the idea of eight spring and fall semesters has come and gone. For years many students at Trine University graduated in less than four years. If you review many institutions and programs prior to the 1970s, graduates often completed programs in three years or less, this included intense majors such as engineering. Students attended school year–round, focused intently on their studies and were not saddled with free elective classes, rather only those that pertained to their area of study or a specific skill set.

Some students, especially athletes, appreciate the idea of a four–year college experience. Those students could commence upon master′s studies or consider an internship or co–op experience to broaden their academic experience.

Universities should consider options that educate the public in ways that meet current demands. Students should be afforded accelerated paths to degrees and cut out the fluff. I want engineers to read Hemingway, but sometimes that′s just not realistic. Some classes, which are required by national accrediting bodies, only add to educational cost, delay education and do not contribute significantly to acquiring a specific skill set. Curriculums need to remain rigorous and ensure quality. We should provide a means by which you can attain a meaningful education in less time in order to become a contributing member of society and the workforce.

With advances in today′s technology, the availability of transportation and companies willing to take on interns and co–op students, we need to change the education model to make college more affordable. Colleges and universities alone cannot do that – they need the support of national accrediting bodies. If institutions adjusted curriculums to eliminate free elective requirements that would create accreditation scrutiny. Graduating with a degree that is not accredited is of no value in a competitive job market nor will it allow entry into a prestigious graduate school. In that sense, institutions are forced to charge students for non–applicable classes and pay for additional faculty members and facilities, which only increase costs and time for degree completion.

In Trine′s School of Professional Studies (SPS), for example, the model of 12 degree programs changed. The programs were strengthened while reducing the number of required credit hours per degree, saving an average of over $1,500 per student. This fall SPS will further the savings by allowing each new student to take his or her first class, a university experience course required in all degree programs, for free tuition and books. This change represents another $1,000 savings.

Another option is for students to take a combination of classes – seated and online – to help defray cost and to finish college more quickly. Classes could be available year–round. Online classes can be less expensive and timely, as transportation to and from a campus is not a requirement. Students can work at their own pace, from the comfort of their own home or preferred location.

Students also should be given educational credit for experiential learning. Many Trine students – and students at other private institutions across the country – complete internships and co–ops at some point in their college career. Many of these students have told me their summer internship experience was more valuable than one full year of college. Others have explained that their internship experience helped them to better understand the theories they were learning in the classroom. As a result of their experiences, their classroom performance improved.

Finally, students should also be given credit for lifelong learning and courses they have completed. Why should credits expire? Why should your time not matter? Students should be able to more easily transfer between colleges and universities, from online to seated or from community college to flagship four–year colleges and universities. We don′t want willing degree seekers to lose ground if life throws a curve ball.

In our region, some jobs cannot be filled because we do not have qualified workers. Amazingly, only a quarter of our population has a college degree, but many more seem to have college debt. Let′s make college completion a reality for all students, whether they′re a recent high school graduate, a single mom with two kids or an unemployed dad who′s lost his job after 20 years of hard work. We need to support all students, give them educational options that are flexible and affordable, without compromising the integrity of a college degree.