Fast-Track Degree Programs

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Choosing one of the growing number of fast-track degree programs on offer around the world could mean finishing your degree much sooner – but is that always a good thing?

The idea behind 'fast-track' or 'accelerated' degree programs is that students save money on fees, accommodation and the like, while also getting a head start on entering employment.

The catch? Well, to start with, you’ll have to convince employers that your fast-track degree has the same value as a longer course. And assuming that the fast-track program packs in just as much as the longer version, you could end up with a much heavier workload – which may mean missing out on other aspects of student life.

What is a fast-track degree program?

There’s always been variation in the length of time required for an undergraduate degree. Depending on the country, the subject and the institution, a bachelor’s degree could take anywhere between three and six years.

But, with many countries seeing rising tuition fees and high levels of student debt, a growing number of universities are introducing fast-track degree program options, allowing students to graduate in as little as two years.

“How is this possible?” you may well ask. Well, it’s not just a case of skipping a year!

If you want to finish faster (and still get a high-quality degree), you need to be prepared to work more intensively, and also to study for more of the year. As a result, you’re likely to get shorter vacations.

Many fast-track programs are based on an existing degree – typically either a four-year course condensed into three, or three years condensed into two. This means the modules are likely to be the same, but covered in a shorter period by squeezing more into each year. So usually it’s easy to transfer onto the full-length course if you decide the fast-track program is not for you.

Benefits of taking a fast-track degree program

In the US, four years is the standard period for a bachelor’s degree. But Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, says its three-year program offers a degree of equal value “in three-quarters the time and at three-quarters the cost” – and (with the exception of nursing majors) no extra coursework in the summer vacation.

This has the advantage of meaning fast-track students can still use the summer for work, internships, travel, or just down time.

However, three-year students do have to take on more work in each semester, in order to earn the required amount of credits in a shorter period.

David Conway, vice president for enrolment management, says, “We work closely with our three-year students to ensure they are able to do this while getting the same value and benefits as our four-year students.”

Since launching in 2009, the fast-track program has enjoyed a steady growth in popularity, and the college is on course to achieve its goal of having 10% of students enrolled on three-year courses. This figure is not higher because, as Hartwick president Margaret L Drugovich says, the fast-track program is “not for everyone.”

Conway agrees, emphasizing that “one has to be a very strong student to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years from Hartwick,” – something which is recognized by employers, he adds.

In fact, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s possible to get a good degree in three years, without missing out on other opportunities or having difficulty finding employment. Three years is standard in countries such as Australia and the UK – and degrees from those nations are not viewed as less valuable than their four-year North American equivalents.

According to a 2011 survey commissioned by the British Council, 73% of hiring managers in the US said they believe UK degrees are “the same or better than those earned in the US.”

Among the perceived benefits of a UK degree, employers cite the high quality of education, earlier specialization in specific subject areas, and the need for students to be self-motivated and complete more independent study.

Even faster-track programs – less than three years

So three-year degrees seem to tick a lot of the right boxes. But how about degrees that take even less than three years?

In Australia, Bond University was the first to start offering a two-year fast-track program. Rather than two semesters per year, fast-track students at Bond take three semesters, starting in January, May and September. Vice Chancellor Tim Brailsford highlights the benefits in terms of financial savings, and also career acceleration.

“Potentially, starting that year earlier puts students one additional year up the career ladder, which may also mean they are better placed for promotions or salary increases down the track, benefiting their long-term earning capacity,” Professor Brailsford says.

In the US as well, it may be possible to complete a degree in less than three years. Advanced Placement (AP) courses, recognized by many universities, allow students to start earning degree credits while still at high school.

This concept underlies the University of Central Missouri’s new Innovation Campus, which as of this year will allow students from local high schools to start working towards a degree – and also to start covering the costs, through work-based training and apprenticeships.

The aim is that participants will gain a bachelor’s degree within two to three years of finishing high school, and also find it easier to enter employment, as they’ll already have lots of practical experience.

University of Central Missouri president Charles Ambrose believes this kind of innovation is essential if higher education is to remain both accessible and relevant. He argues for greater collaboration between educators, communities, government and industry, to develop more ‘sustainable’ approaches to higher education and better prepare students for work.

Reasons not to take a fast-track degree program

Despite the success reported by Hartwick College, the US has been one of the countries most resistant to accelerated, fast-track degree programs.

A 2011 national survey found that most students at ‘four-year’ colleges actually took longer to graduate; only 40% finished within four years. This may not always be intentional; sometimes delays are caused by students transferring to a new college, changing majors, or having difficulty getting places in the classes they want to take, due to high demand.

But it also seems that many students deliberately take their time, preferring to stay in college for longer. Several colleges have trialled three-year degrees in the past, but phased them out again due to low take-up. Upper Iowa University, for example, reported that most students actually wanted the full four-year experience.

A similar picture is found in Canada. In a recent survey of students in Ontario, the majority of students expressed a preference for four years rather than three. And, as in the US, most of those graduating from ‘four-year’ degrees actually took longer.

Extra costs aside, the appeal of a longer course is obvious. Whether or not student days really are ‘the best of your life’, for most people the experience is a rich and enjoyable one. In addition, many undergraduates are not entirely sure what they want to do after graduation, or even what they want to focus on before graduation.

The US system is particularly designed to accommodate this, allowing students to explore more than one option before committing to a specialization.

In summary, no one is suggesting that accelerated, fast track degree programs are the best option for all, or even most students.

The general consensus among fast-track program providers is that they’re ideal for students who know where they want to get to, and have the drive and commitment to get there fast. This doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing other aspects of student life (as the saying goes, ‘work hard, play hard’), but it may require more of a focus on the end result, rather than the student experience in itself.

On the other hand, if high tuition fees are a daunting prospect, if you’re excited about getting your career started, and if you enjoy being challenged, then the fast-track degree program may be ideal for you.

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