Like many high-school seniors, Nicole Arthur was concerned about how she would be able to pay for the full cost of college. So when her guidance counselor handed her a stack of scholarship applications, one packet caught her eye: an associate-degree program that covered the cost of books, fees, and tuition. It would even give her a weekly stipend.
One of the best parts? She could finish her degree in one year.
A number of four-year colleges, such as Hartwick College and Southern New Hampshire University, are already experimenting with three-year bachelor's-degree programs, and Texas Tech University recently announced a plan to offer a medical degree that students can complete in three years rather than the usual four. Now, Indiana's community-college system appears to be the first in the nation to try an expedited path to an associate degree, one that would move students through in about one-third of the time it now takes an average community-college student to earn a two-year degree.
Ms. Arthur will be in the inaugural class of the accelerated associate program this fall at the Ivy Tech Community College campus in her hometown, Fort Wayne, Ind. This is one of two campuses in the system, along with the Indianapolis campus, that plans to offer the pilot program over the next three years. She will take classes with a cohort of about a dozen students studying health-care support, committing to be on campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week.
The project is backed by a $2.3-million grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education and a $270,000 grant from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, an agency that coordinates college programs and policy. The program, which focuses on enrolling low-income students, seeks to improve degree-completion rates for community-college students. About 25 percent of students who enter two-year institutions and hope to earn an associate degree actually graduate with one.
"We're trying to dramatically increase the number of students who are succeeding in college," says Teresa S. Lubbers, Indiana commissioner for higher education. "We need it for Indiana's economy, and we need it to improve the lives of Hoosiers."
Learning in Cohorts
Completing a two-year degree in one year is an ambitious proposition, and the program's developers have focused on creating a model that will enroll only students who have a good chance of succeeding.
Paula J. Birt, director of the program, says many high-school students were interested in the opportunity, but Ivy Tech worked with guidance counselors to identify only students who were college-ready, as determined by test scores, grades, and attendance and discipline records. A number of high-school graduates were offered a conditional acceptance, provided that they completed a summer remediation plan.
The program, which will begin in August, will consist of three groups of 12 to 20 students: one at Ivy Tech's Fort Wayne campus studying health-care support, and two at the Indianapolis campus, one in general studies and the other in computer-information systems.
Students will be expected to be on the campus during business hours, Monday through Friday, taking classes four of the days, with a fifth day for flexible programming, such as field trips or additional class time. Each cohort of students will take four classes at a time in eight-week segments, and classes will typically be taught in three-hour blocks.
"We're not rewriting the curriculum," Ms. Birt says. "We're simply redesigning it to deliver it in a different way."
The Lumina grant allows each campus to have a part-time academic-support staff member, to meet with students and help them set up tutoring. The program also calls for extensive collaboration among faculty members, who will have common planning time to coordinate their classes.
Linda K. Romines, who is program chair for health-care support at Fort Wayne, will teach a course in medical terminology during the first term of the accelerated associate program. She plans to coordinate with other professors, integrating material from other classes also being taught to the accelerated program's students, such as anatomy and physiology.
Ms. Romines believes the program is set up to not only help students graduate earlier but also improve how they synthesize information, even in a condensed time frame.
"If we didn't say it was going to be more challenging, that wouldn't be an honest approach to it," she says. "But I'm a really optimistic person, and I'm hoping for a 100-percent success rate."
The program has a lofty goal of improving poor completion rates at community colleges that often stem, among low-income students, from a lack of family financial resources.
To be eligible for Ivy Tech's accelerated program, students must receive free or reduced-price lunches in high school through a federal program. Students who are picked for the program will receive financial aid, typically including Pell Grants, and will be given a small weekly stipend to help with food and transportation costs.
"We're targeting students who are bright kids but for socioeconomic reasons do not see themselves being successful in college," Ms. Birt says.
Program leaders say the key to determining whether the project is a success will be students' completion rates. President Obama has set a goal for community colleges nationwide to graduate five million more students by 2020.
At Ivy Tech, about 15 percent of students who entered in 2003 graduated with a degree by the end of the 2008-9 academic year, and about 3 percent both earned a degree and transferred to a four-year college. About 16 percent of students transferred to four-year institutions without first earning a degree.
The program's backers say time is the enemy of college completion, as many students get discouraged, or personal and career commitments get in the way. They hope the program's structure and shorter time frame will prevent students from losing focus on their education, allowing them to see the finish line.
"We're very aware of the fact that when it takes longer for our students to complete, it's less likely that they will complete at all," says Ms. Lubbers, the state higher-education commissioner.
The people behind the project also hope some students will use the associate degree as only a starting point for their college education and go on to a four-year institution.
Ms. Arthur, the student in Fort Wayne, says she thought about attending a four-year college, but the financial aid tied to the one-year degree program made it the most affordable option. Her father passed away when she was 10, and she and her mother, who is self-employed, receive federal assistance.
Ms. Arthur was able to defer a state scholarship for low- and moderate-income students, which will cover her tuition at a four-year institution after she completes the Ivy Tech program. She hopes the associate degree will improve her job prospects, and she wants to start working in the health-care-support field while she completes a bachelor's degree.
Interest in accelerated-degree programs has been on the rise in recent years, in part, because of the recession, which has spurred colleges to look for cheaper ways for students to earn degrees and faster ways to move them through to graduation. Getting students out the door more quickly could be particularly helpful to community colleges, many of which have struggled to accommodate surging enrollments in a down economy.
George D. Kuh, director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University at Bloomington, is concerned about the expansion of accelerated-degree programs.
He likes some aspects of Ivy Tech's new program. Putting students in a cohort is an effective learning practice, he says, and selecting college-ready students could lead to the Ivy Tech program's success.
But Mr. Kuh is worried that colleges are pushing students to learn too much, too fast.
"We can set up circumstances like that and push people through," he says. "That still leaves us with the question of whether they are going to be competent."
Reproducing the Program
Mr. Kuh also questions whether the program could be reproduced on a large-enough scale to improve completion rates nationally. Other colleges may not have the resources to develop similar pilot programs, and large numbers of students need remedial courses and would be unprepared to succeed on the accelerated path, he says.
But at least one state has been able to offer certificate programs that are similar to the accelerated-degree option Ivy Tech wants to try. Tennessee's technology centers have been cited by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a potential model for community colleges to improve completion rates. Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation, says the Tennessee centers helped Ivy Tech and Lumina think about how to structure the accelerated-degree program.
At Tennessee's technology centers, students complete certificate programs while studying in cohort groups and taking classes from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., five days a week. The programs' students receive financial aid through a state grant program, financed by a lottery, and many are eligible for Pell Grants. Remedial education is integrated into the regular curriculum of the programs.
The institutions have a 75-percent completion rate, according to James D. King, vice chancellor for the technology centers. Mr. King says community colleges could build similar programs if they started thinking "outside the box."
"The model that we have is truly student-focused," he says. "We're graduating students on time."
Supporters of the Ivy Tech program are optimistic that the program could be expanded, both in Indiana and elsewhere. If the Ivy Tech program succeeds, Ms. Birt hopes companies and community organizations would help back similar programs.
Mr. Merisotis says he would like to see this type of program expanded to unemployed populations to help retrain workers in a short time. The $2-billion set aside for community colleges in the student-loan bill President Obama signed last month could be used to create those kinds of opportunities, he says.
Accelerated programs are sustainable, Mr. Merisotis says, and would allow colleges to more easily accommodate enrollment surges by moving more students through quickly. Money for student stipends could become part of state aid programs, he says.
"Accelerated programs," he says, "have the capacity to be a substantial part of what community colleges do."