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Wed., April 20, 2011, midnight

Editorial: Three-year degrees way to face cost realities

As the importance of a college degree increases, the states’ ability to subsidize the cost decreases. It’s true in Washington and Idaho. It’s true nationwide.

The state covered 80 percent of the cost for a typical Washington State University student in 1987. That’s expected to drop to about 40 percent soon, because the House and Senate versions of the budget for the next biennium include steep declines in higher education funding. As a result, tuitions will once again rise significantly to make up the difference and student debt loads will grow, too.

These price pressures are forcing colleges to rethink basic assumptions and find creative ways to adjust so that students can still obtain diplomas.

One of those assumptions is that it takes four years to complete a bachelor’s degree. But what if students were motivated to finish in three years without hurting the quality of their education? For one thing, they could shave costs by 25 percent.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill this week that encourages colleges to offer three-year degrees without requiring heavier-than-normal course loads and summer school attendance. Some students already have a running start, with some credits completed at high school. But colleges will also be thinking of ways to rewrite requirements to accelerate learning without diminishing the value of diplomas. Proposals for three-year degrees are subject to approval by the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The standard four-year bachelor’s degree has been a feature of U.S. colleges from the beginning, but three-year degrees are fairly common in Great Britain. Universities across the country are looking for ways to push through motivated students more quickly in response to the trend that four-year completion isn’t as readily achieved as it used to be. Rising costs and lack of course availability have made the five- and six-year degree more common.

Then there are the “professional students,” who prefer college life to the working world. Colleges are looking at ways to push them through to graduation or cut them loose from state subsidies.

Given the deep revenue declines, it was inevitable that colleges would have to get creative to meet the new cost realities facing students and their parents. Most students will probably not select the three-year route, but to the extent they do, education financing becomes more efficient.

This is a smart move. The next step is to explore other assumptions and requirements that were a better fit in a bygone era.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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