To the Editor:
Our university's experience introducing three-year B.A. programs stands in sharp contrast to your portrayal of a recent national study of three-year degree programs ("Higher-Education Group Raises Doubts About the Viability of 3-Year Degrees," The Chronicle, September 10).
Your article, which summarized a new study from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, downplayed the study's actual conclusions in favor of a somewhat sensationalist condemnation of three-year degree programs in general. Where the study concludes only that three-year B.A. programs should not "be thought of as a top-tier policy consideration in state efforts to expand college access and improve college affordability," the article only emphasizes the study's criticisms and generally presents such programs in a negative light. While we agree that three-year B.A. programs are neither a magic bullet nor a solution suited to the needs of every student, there is a segment of the undergraduate student population for which such programs represent an innovative and effective path to completion.
This segment of the population is not, however, as narrow as your article claims. Your article asserts that there is very little student demand for three-year programs, and that such programs serve a "primarily Caucasian" and "fiscally and academically well prepared" student population. This portrayal does not match our experience introducing the Global Scholars program, a three-year B.A. program in international studies at American University's School of International Service. On the contrary, we have found there is a tremendous student demand for this three-year program, and, surprisingly, that this demand is not driven solely (or even primarily) by financial concerns. When we began accepting applications for the Global Scholars program, in 2011, we expected only modest demand and planned for an entering class of 25 students. We were quite surprised, therefore, when we received nearly 400 applications for our inaugural cohort. The following year, demand for the program grew 25 percent, and we received nearly 500 applications. The number and quality of these applications were so high that we decided to allow more students to participate in the program. Even so, we are turning away more students than we would like.
In addition, the student population in the Global Scholars program is more diverse than our general student population. This year American University welcomed 40 students into the program. Eight students, or 20 percent of the program, are from other countries, such as China, India, Israel, and Panama. Thirteen students, or 32 percent, self-identify as being members of domestic multicultural groups. Several students are first-generation Americans, and a couple are the first in their families to go to college. And this is not an idiosyncratic result: Just launched this fall, American University's new three-year program in public health continues to reflect the university's commitment to diversity, with nine of this program's 17 students belonging to domestic multicultural groups.
Why, then, has our experience been so different from that characterized by the study from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities? We can only conclude that the success of a three-year degree program must hinge on more than offering students the ability to complete a degree in three years. When we ask students why they chose the Global Scholars program, they say that they are attracted to the prestige and challenge of a program that allows them to graduate in three years. Students also say they like the program's living-learning community, where students live together in a residence hall and take some core degree requirements together as a cohort, taught by dedicated program faculty. Targeted summer study-abroad and student-leadership opportunities also form important components of the program. Only one in five Global Scholars students cites financial reasons as a contributing factor to the decision to complete college in three years.
All of this suggests, in agreement with the study on which The Chronicle article was based, a need to focus less on the time to degree completion, and more on the learning outcomes and student experiences that we are delivering. With the right kinds of assistance from the university, our Global Scholars have formed a tight-knit, supportive community, one that has become an integral part of the broader university. Our experience suggests that three-year B.A. programs can form an important part of the mix for higher education going forward: not a global solution for all problems, but a targeted option that can serve an important segment of the undergraduate population.
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson
Professor and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education
Sarah Cleeland Knight
Assistant Professor School of International Service
Director, Global Scholars Program
School of International Service