Accelerated Degree Programs
Why have accelerated degree programs been on the rise in recent years, who are the students most interested in such programs, and are these programs just as effective for learners as traditional degree programs? This article first compares the typical accelerated degree program with traditional degree programs, so as to get a clear understanding of what constitutes an accelerated program. The paper also describes the advent of "strip-mall universities" and also looks at the advantages and disadvantages of this type of school as well as accelerated degree programs in general. The paper describes a few other types of accelerated degree programs for varying educational levels, and examines some of the criteria schools should consider when considering the implementation of an accelerated degree program. The paper concludes with a brief examination of how online activities might be used in all of the described accelerated programs.
Keywords Accelerated Degree Program; Adjunct Teacher; Cohort-based Program; College Board; National Center for Education Statistics; Non-traditional Student; Strip Mall University; Traditional Student
The number of accelerated degree programs has been increasing in the last few decades, though there are several variations on these accelerated programs, which are designed for specific types of degrees. Some courses do not have as much academic contact hours as traditional courses, and instead online class work, team projects, internships and other educational assignments are used to compensate for the reduced number of contact hours. Other accelerated courses manage to maintain the same number of contact hours as a traditional fifteen-week course (about forty-five hours per semester) by increasing the duration of each course session to as much as eight hours. As Husson and Kennedy (2003) note, many colleges are offering accelerated degree programs in five- or eight-week formats, meaning students attend classes one night per week for a four-hour session. Twenty to thirty-two hours of contact sessions enable nontraditional students to accomplish their goals through a combination of intensive in-class sessions and out-of-class work. The authors believe that this approach creates some significant differences from the traditional forty- to forty-five contact hours per semester-long course wherein students meet several times per week (Husson & Kennedy, 2003, p. 52).
This accelerated structure, which has fewer classroom contact hours, is currently the most commonly encountered accelerated degree program that universities offer, and has become the standard accelerated program format. Considering the growth of such programs, a few obvious questions are:
• Why have accelerated degree programs been on the rise in recent decades?
• Who are the students increasingly enrolling into these programs?
• Are these programs just as effective as traditional programs?
The Rise of Accelerated Degree Programs
According to Singh and Martin (2004), many educators believe that "intensive courses and programs will flourish in the future, largely as a result of the changing demographic trends on campuses" (p. 299). The main reason for this predicted increase — or the specific trend that the authors assert has changed the demographics of the college student population — is the increasing number of nontraditional students enrolling to gain college degrees. This trend, which has been occurring at least since the 1970s, is caused by many social and economic factors, but the statistics clearly demonstrate that the trend is real, and is rising. As Taniguchi and Kaufman (2005) have observed in their research:
"While the enrollment of students aged 24 or younger grew by 51 percent between 1970 and 2000, the increase for older students was about three times as large. . . . In 1999–2000, 40 percent of all enrollees were in their mid-20s or older, with a large proportion of them attending part time and having dependents" (p. 912).
Undoubtedly, the main reason many schools have started offering accelerated degree programs is to meet the needs of this growing number of nontraditional students. As Singh and Martin (2004) note, "continuing education students with busy work schedules are returning to continue their education, and it is generally assumed that they prefer shorter, intensive programs" (p. 299). They cite a study that supports this assumption, and they argue that many educational institutions that are struggling for financial stability quite often view the development of new accelerated programs as a ready source and means to increase their revenues. Institutions of higher education already have all the necessary elements in place (i.e. teachers, computer labs, classroom space, accreditation, research facilities, etc), so answering nontraditional student needs is essentially a matter of redesigning the meeting times, days, and duration of the courses so as to create accelerated programs. However, there are also other important considerations schools should examine before establishing an accelerated degree program.
In the past, most colleges were organized around what could be called a traditional college program model. Classes were always scheduled on campus, most often during the daytime hours and on weekdays, with a few evening courses scheduled to help manage the over-enrollments or scheduling conflicts of traditional students. Husson and Kennedy (2003) observe that, as the number of adults returning to college steadily increased, many of these institutions began to creatively adapt their class schedules so as to accommodate working adult learners. Many more classes specifically intended for these nontraditional students were scheduled in the evenings and on the weekends, which are meeting times that these students are better able to fit into their busy schedules. Also, the authors note that organizations like the College Board indicate that "location is a primary decision factor for older adults returning to college," and this is why many of the more market-sensitive colleges have opened extension learning centers (Husson & Kennedy, p. 53). Many colleges have also begun offering alternative delivery methods such as guided independent study programs and Internet-based courses in addition to their traditional system of classroom delivery. These types of alternative deliveries, which allow students to study much more from home, have been designed with the growing nontraditional student population in mind, and are often integrated into accelerated degree programs.
The rapid growth of accelerated degree programs also comes from the fact that financial backing is frequently provided by the full-time working students' employers. When colleges began meeting the needs of adult students through new accelerated degree programs, corporations began supporting their adult student employees with tuition benefits, which has served as a strong incentive for these older students to return to college. Husson and Kennedy (2003) note that company sponsorship, combined with convenient accelerated programs, has allowed nontraditional students to "complete upper-division course work and receive their degrees from an accredited institution in a fraction of the time that it would normally take on a traditional campus" (p. 51).
Alongside this trend is another market phenomenon that one author refers to as "strip-mall" universities. As the College Board observed, location is an essential factor for nontraditional students, and the local shopping mall is about as convenient a location as one could wish for. Strother (2005), who has much experience in teaching at strip-mall universities, gives an interesting view of this new type of school. He succinctly describes the typical accelerated program model for course offerings, and he lists several of the advantages that have attracted close to 600 nontraditional students into enrolling at this strip-mall university:
“They attend classes from 6 to 10 p.m., one night a week, for two to three years. They avoid the numerous hassles of traditional college registration, like inconvenient class times and full or canceled courses. They only have to register once, when they enroll. They also avoid long lines at college bookstores because in this accelerated program, the books are delivered directly to them through overnight mail. And you sure can't beat the parking. Moreover, strip-mall universities are ‘customer-oriented,’ so they are generous in accepting transfer credits, and students can finish their degrees faster” (Strother, 2005, p. 4).
Strother is quite aware of the necessity for large universities to be more competitive in gaining these strip-mall students. He describes yet another institution that hired him as an adjunct. This school was "a 150-year-old, traditional, urban university that had just survived a painful reorganization." He writes that "the administrators were eager to increase enrollment, so they adopted some of the tactics of their competitors, the strip mall institutions." The school shortened its semesters to eight weeks, began using adjuncts for their new degree program (which Strother describes as "'in a box' degree-completion programs") and he notes that the school invested heavily in a marketing campaign to gain nontraditional students. The changes successfully attracted adult students, and the school's enrollment increased significantly (2005, p. 16).
This is exactly the direction that higher educational consultants such as Greene and Greene (2003), who have examined the trends, have advised larger colleges and universities to take. They observe that accelerated program listings are often hidden in university course catalogs or websites, or are hidden within individual departmental pages or graduate studies sections. Greene and Greene argue that "colleges would do well to tout their special degree programs up front in their literature and on their Internet sites" (2003, p. 3), which is essentially a matter of better marketing. They write that using a better marketing strategy would help these schools to attract academically serious, motivated, and well-prepared students, and they strongly recommend that universities develop or expand combined degree programs "as a means to expand their offerings without the necessity to expand or build new curricula" (p. 4).
Again, this points out that schools already have many of the needed ingredients already in place, and it is a matter of using those resources to meet nontraditional student needs. Strother observes that this is something traditional universities should be doing. He writes that "to compete with the strip-mall campuses, bricks-and-mortar universities need to offer more-convenient programs for students" (2005, p. 17), though he observes that these schools should retain their rich, traditional, on-campus experience as well. He also argues that strip-mall universities should seek out ways to expose their students to more extracurricular activities that are an essential part of a well-rounded education, which relates to some of the possible disadvantages of strip-mall accelerated programs.
(The entire section is 4961 words.)