This month, college seniors from across Maine will walk across the stage to accept their diplomas — most after four or more years of classes. For more and more students, however, graduation day will come much sooner, a trend designed to make college more appealing and affordable.
In her senior year of high school, Kathryn Lindsay was at a crossroads. Her parents wanted her to go to college.
“They knew it was important. My mom works as a beekeeper, makes honey. My dad owns his own truck driving business. They knew they wanted me to go to college,” she says.
But Lindsay says her parents also made it clear that the financial burden would be on her.
“So they weren’t gonna help out costwise, so they just had me work through high school, save, apply for scholarships,” she says.
Even with scholarships, Lindsay says she knew she was still looking at tens of thousands of dollars in student loans over four years. Then she learned about a program at Waterville’s Thomas College that that offers a bachelor’s degree in three years.
“That was a deciding factor. I could get it done in three years, and I wanted to get it done as fast as possible when I was the one paying for it,” she says.
“Basically, time equals money. So time to degree really matters,” says Sarah Flanagan with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Flanagan says Thomas isn’t alone in this new push. She says at least 20 private colleges have launched accelerated programs within the past decade, partly as a way to make the price of private college more appealing.
“There’s a lot of innovation going on around programming where colleges are trying to sit and say, ‘What are the essential components of a degree? And how do we get students there as efficiently, effectively as possible for their particular needs?’” she says.
At Thomas College, the shift was largely driven by two trends. First was the growth of early college. Since 2010, the number of high schoolers taking college classes from Maine’s public universities has more than doubled.
The second trend, says Thomas College Provost Tom Edwards, was Maine’s transition to proficiency-based education, which is intended to assess students on what they know rather than how much time they spend in class.
Three years ago, Edwards says, the school redesigned its degrees to fit these new trends. And it determined that for certain majors, such as accounting and business, some students could take six classes a semester, plus a few summer classes, and finish in three years.
“From a cost standpoint, anytime we can cut college costs by 25 percent by eliminating a full year of tuition, room and board, that’s great,” he says.
The new approach hasn’t been limited to private colleges. The University of Maine system is one of many public universities nationwide that have begun embracing new four- and five-year master’s programs.
However, some worry that all of this focus on completion may not be helping the right students.
“It shouldn’t be those who are most marginalized, underserved, who don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of the greater purpose of higher education,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Pasquerella’s concerned that by streamlining a degree this way, colleges could be diluting the true value of that degree. She says even in a shorter period of time, students should still need to have access to a broader, liberal arts education, as well as internships and other experiences that will teach students skills beyond their area of interest.
“So how can all of these opportunities come together for students if the only goal is completion?” she says.
At Thomas College, Kathryn Lindsay says she feels that she got same experience as friends who’ll be in college an extra year. But completing a degree in three years, she says, required a lot more work.
“Last spring, I was here from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day, in classes or studying. So it was like a full-time job. And going home, there was homework. So it was a lot,” she says.
To help students with that increased workload, more schools are now trying to beef up their academic support systems. In the University of Maine System, Vice Chancellor Robert Neely says officials are now talking about ways to increase that support, which he says has lagged in rural campuses like Machias.
“It’s unethical if we don’t figure out a mechanism, that once we accept these students, to get them through,” he says.
On the whole, though, colleges say many of these programs have been a success. At Thomas College, 80 percent of its first cohort of three-year graduates received their diplomas this year. That’s a rate far above the national average.
Provost Edwards says it’s also notable that more than half of these students graduating are first-generation, which is a population that’s traditionally struggled to finish college.
Lindsay says her experience was certainly tough. But she says between living at home, receiving scholarships and eliminating a year of expenses, she’s only looking at about $10,000 in student loans. Which is a relief.
“Paying back my loans is something I’m not too worried about, which is a blessing. When I talk with friends they have $40,000, $50,000. I have a quarter of that. So I was lucky,” she says.
Officials say these programs won’t work for everyone. But they say these options can create a more customized college experience for each student — and potentially one with less debt.