LAWeekly — Education Guide 2015
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Smarter, Faster
Paul Rogers


Few working adults can afford the luxury of a four-year sabbatical during which to earn a degree. So accelerated degree programs were developed precisely with “continuing learners” in mind. Designed to fit around the work and family schedules of older students, these fast-track programs allow what would normally be a four-year bachelors degree to be completed in as little as 16 months, or a traditionally two-year masters qualification to be earned in a year

Accelerated programs typically use expedited courses (often involving longer individual class periods) which are designed to run back-to-back in less than the usual 12-week semester schedule. Classes may take only a month to complete. Additionally, these programs usually offer flexible course scheduling – with classes conducted and admissions accepted year-round – and evening and weekend classes which allow students to keep their full-time jobs. In some cases, to further speed things along, a student’s previously completed coursework can also be counted towards their degree. Accelerated degree programs may be delivered entirely or partially online.

“Accelerated programs compact more learning activity into a shorter calendar period by running courses without breaks, designing more learning activity to take place outside of the classroom (often in team activities) and by including activities that apply the life experience of the learner in the course,” said Mike Echols, PhD, executive vice president at Bellevue University, CEO of Smart Degree and author of Your Future Is Calling: A Practical Guide to the Education You Need to Have the Future You Desire. “The life experience activities are especially useful to adult learners.”

Bellevue University, a private non-profit college in Nebraska, offers accelerated programs (in-class or online) which, with transferred credits, allow a student to earn an undergraduate degree in as little as 16 months.

The accelerated degree experience is altogether more streamlined and intense than that of a traditional freshman-sophomore-junior-senior semester structure.

“In many cases, the designers of the curriculum of these programs cut out the electives and move students through a cohort model … where students move through classes as a group and have start-dates all year,” said Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA, an educational consultant and founder of Learning Lab LA and Beyond Tutoring. “In other words, the program is narrowly tailored and focused on graduation as the goal with little student choice in terms of classes and often class-times.”

The cohort model also means that accelerated degree programs commonly emphasize collaboration and teamwork – more so than in “traditional” programs.
“Because the students all take the same classes together at the same time, they often rely on each other in the form of collaboration and teamwork,” Schellenberg explained. “Since the students are often already a team by virtue of their class schedule, the intensity of the program and this model, they often work well together. This model fosters a community spirit!”

With the skyrocketing cost of education over the past 10-15 years, the advent of virtual classrooms, and recessions which propelled adults back into school in search of more marketable skills, accelerated programs have proliferated over the past quarter-century.

“The economic downturn of 2007-09 definitely impacted the popularity and proliferation of accelerated programs,” said Schellenberg. “Due to many individuals out of work and in need of a new trade, but in a shortened time period, universities created more programs for the working professional. Universities began offering programs at an accelerated pace for individuals who wanted technical training or to create movement in a stagnant career.”

Most colleges today offer at least some accelerated degrees and almost every subject and technical training is offered in this form.

“Even top law schools, such as Northwestern [University in Illinois], offer a two year program,” said Schellenberg. “Many universities offer an accelerated medical school which is in combination with a student’s bachelor’s degree.”
But the college experience and lifestyle will usually be very different for accelerated learners compared with the “traditional” students with whom they share campuses, as will the study habits they’ll need to adopt to not only complete their degree, but also to simultaneously stay on top of work and family commitments.

“Accelerated learning has the benefit of shortening the time in school, but the tradeoff is a much more intense and demanding study schedule throughout each term,” said Echols. “Accelerated degree programs require focus and discipline that is largely selfimposed, especially if the accelerated program is being delivered online.”

Furthermore, without the luxury of taking a number of classes before settling on their specialization (as in a traditional four-year setting), accelerated students need to hit the ground running in terms of focus and commitment.

“In an accelerated degree program, students begin their specialization the very first day,” said Schellenberg. “Because of this students must be highly organized, motivated and ready to work from the beginning of their cohort.”

Crucially, accelerated programs can earn an individual a degree not just faster, but cheaper. Over the past 35 years, the cost of college tuition has, in real terms, nearly quadrupled. The average published tuition and fee price for in-state students enrolled full-time at public four-year colleges and universities is $9,139 for the 2014-15 academic year, according to The College Board Annual Survey of Colleges. So compressing a fouryear degree program into as little as 16 months could mean saving tens of thousands of dollars.
Fiscal factors and a still uncertain U.S. economy suggest that the popularity of accelerated degree programs will only continue to grow.

“Accelerated degrees, in many ways, are the wave of the future,” said Schellenberg. “With the increasing United States economic uncertainty, people will be looking to these programs in order to have an edge in the job force. Because of this, I think that accelerated programs are the vanguards of adult learning in years to come.”