Release Date: Friday, April 29, 2011
by Erica Peterson
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
College students across WV are preparing for commencement soon. Many of them take the more traditional path of graduating within four years. Some take five or six, but a significant percentage of students at one university are on the fast-track to graduation.
This weekend, the University of Charleston holds its spring commencement ceremony. Graduates will don caps and gowns, process down the aisle and receive their diplomas. This year, nearly a quarter of the students in the graduating class have finished their college education in less than four years.
Twenty-year-old Aaron Souza is one of those students. He’s graduating with degrees in accounting and business administration.
“That was actually one of the deciding factors in me coming to this school, was I had researched it and found out I could get my degree in three years, and at this point I’m actually going to be getting two degrees in that time,” he said.
Students at any college can hypothetically graduate in three years if they fulfill their graduation requirements. But the University of Charleston is one of a handful of schools that offers a specific plan for students to graduate early. The curriculum relies on assessment in six areas–what the university calls its Liberal Learning Outcomes.
“Outcomes-based education is an effort to identify what students need to know and what they need to be able to do in order to graduate,” said University President Ed Welch. “So the focus is on student learning and the demonstration of that learning rather than the focus being on what the faculty member does, what the institution teaches. So in a way it inverts the whole process and I think put the emphasis where it ought to be: are the students who graduate prepared to graduate?”
UC’s system allows students to get credit for demonstrating their proficiency in subject areas without necessarily taking the classes. For instance, the school doesn’t offer English 101. Instead, students meet writing requirements through classes in their major.
Kari McFann has been at UC for three years. She’s graduating this weekend, too, and hasn’t had to take any classes during the summer.
“I think the minimum I’ve taken a semester—besides this semester, because I only had a few classes left to take—was 18 hours,” she said. “Some semesters I took 25, I think one semester I even took 27. That’s what’s really great about the University of Charleston: you don’t get charged extra for taking more classes.”
The concept of a three-year plan is picking up steam in the United States, but it’s not yet common. Critics worry students are sacrificing quality for quantity, and are missing out on some of the tenants of a liberal arts education by choosing a fast track. President Welch says he thinks those concerns are unfounded.
“There are more schools starting to consider the option,” he said. “I wouldn’t say more and more, it is not a national fad at this point. And there are still many people in the liberal arts area that say that we shouldn’t do it because they’re focusing on some cultural experience that you have over a period of time. As I said, I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that really happens, but it is still the belief that some people have.”
McFann says she regrets not being able to participate in as many activities in college—but in retrospect she’s still glad she’s finishing early.
“I know I have several friends who are athletes and none of them could have ever graduated in three years and be an athlete,” she said.
“So it does take up a lot of your time but if you’re dedicated to it, and if you know going into things that you’re going to have to be dedicated, you’re going to have to dedicate more hours to studying that you would normally, then I think it’s okay. I think it really works out.”
For both Kari McFann and Aaron Souza, their decision translates to getting a jump on the job market. Souza will start as an investment accountant at the West Virginia Investment Management Board in May, and McFann will attend law school at Capital University in Ohio.