Washington universities can make a three-year bachelor’s degree an option for some students under a bill the governor signed into law Monday.
Supporters said the new measure, which will allow state universities and Evergreen State College to set up accelerated programs, will help mitigate some of the effects of deep budget cuts to Washington’s higher education system.
“Economically, politically and for the students’ future, it’s the right thing to do,” said Sen. Paull Shin, the bill’s primary sponsor.
Shin, a Democrat from Mukilteo, said he had graduated from college in three years, and he wanted others to have the same opportunity to enter the job market earlier and with less debt.
The new law encourages universities to offer accelerated programs that allow students to graduate in three years without taking summer classes or more than a full-time course load, and the programs must be approved by the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Higher Education Coordinating Board deputy director Jan Ignash said the new law won’t require universities to set up the programs, but having them spelled out in statute should encourage four-year schools to create them.
Also, she said, universities in Washington are 11 percent overenrolled now, so having a framework in place to help them free up more space should be enticing.
“It elevates the whole issue when the Legislature comes out and passes a law,” Ignash said.
Mike Reilly, the director of the state's Council of Presidents, which includes the presidents from all six of the public four-year schools in Washington, said all the institutions were planning to set up an accelerated program under the new law.
Most likely, said Reilly, the programs universities will enact would require that students take some college level courses in high school to boost their credits, but they could also include credit for internships or curriculum changes within majors.
What remains to be seen, Reilly said, is whether students are attracted to the new programs. He said it's important to remember that college is about more than just classes, and some students might prefer the experience of extracurricular activities to an intense, three-year focus on academics.
The University of Washington already has a program called Husky Advantage that helps students who enter the university with advanced placement credits from high school make it through their degrees early.
UW lobbyist Margaret Shepherd said that program probably wouldn’t change under the new law, which goes into effect in July. She said, though that she hoped the measure would attract more attention and more students to Husky Advantage, especially since lower state funding for universities could limit course offerings and make it more difficult to graduate early.
“I think it will have the effect of adding some visibility to the program,” Shepherd said of the bill.
In letters the state’s four-year institutions sent to state legislators earlier in the session, they estimated that the governor’s proposed cuts to higher education funding over the next two years would increase the time it takes for undergraduates to get a degree by a range of one quarter to about a year.
If the Legislature cut funding at 15 percent over the governor’s proposal, which is closer to the reductions the House and Senate suggested in the budget bills they unveiled recently, university estimates for the amount of extra time it would take to get a degree ranged from one quarter to 1.8 years.