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V4I2: Southern Utah University’s 3-Year Bachelor’s Degree

By: Scott L Wyatt (Scott Wyatt is the immediate past president of Southern Utah University. He is now employed as the Senior Executive Director of Statewide Online Education for the Utah System of Higher Education)

Southern Utah University (SUU) is a public, regional university situated in rural Cedar City, with a population of 38,000 people. SUU offers a variety of face-to-face and distance programs with a total fall semester enrollment of nearly 14,000. When residential students arrive each fall for the start of the new academic year the university is filled to capacity and the town economy gets a bump. By all appearances, the Walmart has more shoppers on fall semester move-in day than any other day of the year, including black Friday. Things ease up a bit during spring semester and then become quiet during the summer.

SUU’s leadership team asked the question, “What would it do for the university, students, and community if the annual boomtown-like cycles leveled off?” We thought it might be possible with a comprehensive 3-year bachelor’s degree program that retained eight-semesters to completion but moved two of the semesters into the summers that follow the freshman and sophomore years. The university made a pitch to the Utah State Legislature during the 2019 general session and was successful in receiving a $3.8 million dollar appropriation in ongoing money to pilot a comprehensive 3-year bachelor’s degree program.

The legislature’s primary motivation was to increase the usage of campus classrooms, which would reduce the need to fund additional classroom buildings in the future. Each student who makes the shift to a 3-year degree attends one fewer fall and spring semester, reducing demand during the peak semesters, and attends during the summer, which has significant capacity. Further, if it could work at SUU, it might work at the other state institutions. Utah is a growth state; its universities have high classroom utilization for two 15-week periods each year and very low utilization for the remaining 22 weeks. This efficiency program could result in saving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on new buildings.

In addition to the legislature’s hope of a reduction in new state building costs, there were several other potential benefits, including additional income for faculty who want to take on a full or part-time summer load, pedagogical benefits for students who have a gap in learning for four months each summer, financial benefits for students who trade the wages they earn working temporary, student jobs during two summers for an additional year of professional salary and benefits by starting their careers one year earlier, and the possibility of attracting more students who know what they want to study and are highly motivated. The benefits for the community might be a stabilization of the town economy and a moderating of traffic and parking congestion during fall semester.

The project began with faculty designing 3-year accelerated roadmaps for every major, without abandoning the traditional 4-year roadmaps already in place. Of course, students in some majors, such as the humanities, have always been able to complete their degrees in three years. But students in other majors, such as STEM fields with highly prescribed programs and prerequisites, have not. Implementing the accelerated roadmaps for every major, in the early years, was not feasible. Consequently, a ranked priority list was created based on high demand majors at the university and high need jobs in the state. The Utah Department of Workforce Services ranks jobs on a 1-5 ‘star’ scale. Jobs with a large number of openings and high salaries rank as 5-star jobs. Jobs with fewer openings and lower salaries are progressively ranked with less stars. In the first year of the SUU program, faculty designed and implemented 3-year degree opportunities for 91% of the students who had declared a major. It included every major tied to a job ranked by the state as a 4-star or 5-star job, except nursing.

The faculty senate was asked to recommend a payment structure for summer loads. Our initial thought was that willing faculty members would move from 9-month to 12-month contracts. However, the faculty senate recommended a pay per course taught model, which was adopted. Furthermore, it was contemplated that classes would primarily be taught face-to-face on campus. But it was discovered that most students preferred the flexibility of online classes during the summer. This allowed them to return home, travel, or have more summer employment opportunities while also remaining engaged in their studies.

SUU had been operating with 16-week fall and spring semesters. Summer semesters required comparable work but were generally divided into two terms. With the adoption of the 3-Year Bachelor’s degree program the fall and spring semesters were shortened to 15 weeks, including final exams. This allowed for a similar summer semester and slightly increased gaps between the three semesters.

With funding secured from the legislature to implement the program, the most difficult challenges came from faculty and staff members who worried about the culture shift and how it might affect them personally. For example, despite assurances to the contrary, faculty members who were opposed to teaching during the summer months feared they would, nevertheless, eventually be required to do so. Some were against the idea that the university was encouraging a “get in and get out” mentality for students by promoting an accelerated program of study. And some staff members felt unfair treatment since faculty were given the option to teach in the summer, and additional pay to do so, while staff members were largely expected to just do more work. A number of forums and individual meetings were held to address these issues with concerned faculty and staff members.

The university defined early success as getting all priority ranked majors into a 3-Year plan, mid-term success as realizing 50% student participation in the accelerated degree completion program, and long-term success as a reduction in overall student time to completion. For many students it would not be graduating in three years, but rather decreasing years to completion from six to five, or five to four. SUU exceeded expectations with respect to the early success measure, as indicated above. Mid-term success is being assessed through student cohorts. The first cohort is all spring 2020 bachelor’s degree seeking SUU students. The progress measure is the number of students in the cohort who attended five consecutive semesters and who were bachelor’s degree seeking students in each of those five semesters, including two summer semesters. The number of students so enrolled in the first cohort was 505, which represents a 35.4% increase over the comparable cohort from spring 2019, prior to implementing the 3-Year degree option. It is assumed that the number of participating students would have been higher but for the pandemic. Student registrations for summer semester 2020 were trending up 100% over the prior summer during the early registration months of January and February, but then dropped in March after disruptions related to the pandemic took hold on the campus.

It is too early to tell if the program will be successful with the time to completion goals. However, many of the incremental goals have already been realized. Interested faculty members have been able to increase their income through summer teaching, students have more options, the university is modeling innovation, and economic activity in the community has increased during the summer.


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