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Colleges try to speed up pace at which students earn degrees

New programs try to reverse the trend of higher education taking longer

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INDIANAPOLIS — In the year since they graduated together, Daranie Ounchaidee still runs into a lot of her friends from high school.

After all, they ended up commuting to the same community college, where those classmates stopped to commiserate in the corridors about the twists, turns, and missteps they’d already taken on their paths to associate’s degrees.

Many work part time, prolonging their time in school. Others have changed majors or dropped courses. Most, whose parents never went to college, struggle with the red tape of registering, paying, and applying for financial aid.

For them, Ounchaidee said, “it’s like there’s no ending.”

But for her, a degree came with astonishing swiftness.

Daranie Ounchaidee  (Photo: Ivy Tech Community College)

Daranie Ounchaidee (Photo: Ivy Tech Community College)

Ounchaidee, along with a select group of 40 fellow students from low-income families in which they were the first to go to college, just earned her two-year associate’s degree in only 11 months.

They are among the pioneers of a new movement to speed up the ever-slowing pace at which students get through college, from two years to one for associate’s degrees and four years to three for bachelor’s degrees, saving them and taxpayers money and improving low graduation rates.

That’s because the longer it takes students to reach the finish line, the less likely they ever will.

Only 4 percent of community college students complete an associate’s degree within two years, and 36 percent of students at public universities earn a bachelor’s degree in four.

Only 4 percent of community college students complete an associate’s degree within two years, and 36 percent of students at public universities earn a bachelor’s degree in four, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that 60 percent of community college and more than 40 percent of university students are still flailing toward those credentials after even six years.

Among the reasons: Students right out of highly regimented high schools find themselves lost in college, need academic help but don’t know where to find it or are hesitant to ask, or work so many hours to afford tuition and life expenses such as gas and rent that they crawl through their required coursework.

Fewer than half of community college students attend full time. Even among those in school full time, a fifth have full-time and 40 percent part-time jobs, the American Association of Community Colleges says.

Ounchaidee and her classmates in the Associate Accelerated Program, or ASAP, at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, had grade-point averages of at least 2.5 in high school, and had to pledge to stay in college full time and not work, and to continue living with their parents or guardians. Those are among the stipulations of the program, where the time to their degrees was compressed to less than one year.

They also had no choices of what courses to take. Each began within days of finishing high school, and, together as a group, went through 60 hours a week of rigidly proscribed classes and outside assignments.

“We have their curriculum laid out from Day One,” said Jon Arbuckle, one of the instructors. “Without these guidelines, students bounce around. They’ll take a handful of classes, then some life event occurs, they take a semester off, and they’re lost.”

ASAP occupies its own small warren of offices and classrooms in a single building at the sprawling Ivy Tech, where counselors and advisors are never farther away than across the hall.

“We give them all the support they need — often more than they need,” said Jeff Jourdan, a former Arena Football League player and psychologist who serves as the program’s coordinator and de facto coach. “They’re not an island. They have people they can go to.”

In their first week, students get lessons about contending with the college’s bureaucracy — who and what the registrar or bursar are, for instance.

Eighteen-year-olds “have very well-developed defense mechanisms,” Jourdan said. “They put off the vibe of, ‘I can handle this. I’m cool.’ But underneath they’re scared, they’re nervous. This is something no one in their families has ever done.”

When the meetings shrink to one on one, and those anxieties emerge, “we go through a lot of Kleenex,” he said, tapping a box of it on his desk.

As for the students, they said they prefer this structure.

“That’s a good thing,” said one, Carrington Murry. “It feels like a continuation of high school. Otherwise it would have been hard to stay focused.”

Carrington Murry (Photo: Ivy Tech Community College)

Carrington Murry (Photo: Ivy Tech Community College)

Yawning at the start of an early morning course in archaeology, a few weeks shy of graduation, the ASAP students lugged heavy backpacks to their seats, asked perceptive questions, and filled in latecomers about the assignments. The other classes they took include English composition, American history, critical thinking, ethics, algebra, earth science, sociology, interpersonal communication, psychology, and economics.

There’s consensus that this wasn’t easy. Their parents weren’t initially supportive, some of the students said. Ounchaidee’s, who are Thai and Laotian, relied on her to help them communicate in English, for example, she said, and were reluctant to let her go to college. “But they told me that if I wanted a better life, they’d give it a chance.”

Olivia Malone said not being able to have a job was tough. “You have family to take care of and help out,” she said.

But, like Ounchaidee, Malone said she thinks it’s worth it when she sees her high school friends dawdling through the same community college.

“It’s going to take them a while,” Malone said.

There are other programs like this, with similarly catchy acronyms, to fast-track students. They include the Accelerated Higher Education Associate Degree, or AHEAD, at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, and the Accelerated Study in Associate Program, also called ASAP, at the City University of New York.

Since 2009, about 20 private four-year colleges and universities, most recently Wesleyan in Connecticut, have started offering three-year bachelor’s degrees, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. So have public universities including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Mississippi State University, Miami University of Ohio, and some campuses of the State University of New York.

Eighty-six percent of Ivy Tech’s ASAP students earn their degrees on time, or at least remain enrolled, the college says. That’s a rate five times higher than for their conventional counterparts. Since the program began only in 2010, the college doesn’t have reliable data on enough of them to know how they’ve done since, but some are majoring at four-year universities in fields including engineering, business, graphic design, and architecture.

Because they get degrees in one year, instead of a minimum of two, ASAP saves the students money. It costs $7,119, most of which can be covered by federal Pell grants and state financial aid.

By speeding up the pace of higher education, the approach reduces the cost per degree for taxpayers, too, according to a Columbia University study of the CUNY program.

These experiments also serve to expose the fact that universities and colleges “assume students coming in already know how to navigate the higher-education waters,” Arbuckle said. “But they don’t necessarily know that. Even the physical environment, just how it’s scattered—you’re taking a class in one building and another class in another building and your advisor is in another building.”

Some of his students come from families so poor that Arbuckle keeps food for them in a drawer of his desk. One was unable to do complete a reading assignment because the electricity to his family’s apartment was shut off. That student managed to finish the program with a 3.8 grade-point average and won a full scholarship to a four-year university.

Without close personal attention, Arbuckle said, “his potential would have been overlooked.”

Added Jourdan: “These are amazingly bright kids. Imagine what they could have done with the resources other kids have.”

Ounchaidee has been accepted to study biomedical engineering at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where she’ll start in August.

“It’s a good thing,” she said of her speeded-up associate’s degree. “Without it, I would probably just be working. It gives me plans and hope.”

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