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Middlebury To Offer 3-Year Bachelor's Degree

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Middlebury College has decided to join the ranks of the few schools that offer a quicker route to a formal degree.

The small, selective private school in Middlebury, Vt., announced last month that it will offer an optional three-year Bachelor of Arts degree beginning in 1995.

The decision represents a questioning of "the notion that every thing is learned equally well in 13-week semesters with a final exam at the end, with three one-hour meetings each week, and time off in the summer,'' said John McCardell, the president of the college.

The announcement comes at a time when the concept of a three-year college degree is gaining attention nationwide.

While only a small number of institutions are known to offer three-year degree programs with an abridged course load, several state university systems are looking into the idea, including the State University of New York and the University of California.

And many colleges already allow students to complete a bachelor's degree in three years by granting credit for high school Advanced Placement courses and letting students take heavier course loads.

"What it's getting away from is the notion that seat time equals student accomplishment and learning,'' said Charles S. Lenth, the director of policy studies for higher education at the Education Commission of the States. "We have to have a better way to determine what the expectations are for students, and how to measure whether students have met those expectations.''

The Middlebury three-year degree program will be relatively limited in scope, available only to students enrolled in a special "international major'' program emphasizing international affairs, foreign language, and study abroad.

Participants will complete their coursework over three academic years and two summers.

Looking ahead, however, Middlebury has not ruled out expanding the three-year option into other fields, Mr. McCardell said.

Among the other colleges currently offering a formal three-year degree program are Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn. The State University of New York at Brockport has offered a 96-credit, three-year baccalaureate program since 1971.

Cost Savings Stressed

The debate over the notion of a three-year degree gained momentum in 1991 after S. Frederick Starr, the president of Oberlin College, expressed his support for the idea in an opinion piece that ran on The New York Times's Op-Ed page.

Mr. Starr argued that shortening the amount of time needed to complete a degree would save students money and would cut college costs by forcing schools to re-examine their course offerings, as a result "winnowing out curriculum frills.''

"There is a rising demand from the student-market side for accelerated degrees of all sorts,'' Mr. Starr said in a recent interview. Yet, he added, "there has been a tendency, especially among a few elite schools, to treat this dismissively.''

Mr. Starr also pointed to the rise in the number of high school students taking A.P. courses as a sign that more freshmen are arriving having taken college-level work.

Approximately 414,000 students took 624,000 A.P. exams in May 1993, 60,000 more exams than were taken in 1992.

But others advise moving cautiously.

Most students arrive in college still "relatively immature,'' according to J. Ronald Spencer, the associate academic dean at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "They don't know who they are and who they want to become, not just occupationally but intellectually,'' he said. "They really need the four years to sort these things out.''

Mr. Spencer also expressed concern that with trends toward increased specialization, a three-year degree could result in increased emphasis on the major and the elimination of a significant portion of the general courses required for a liberal-arts degree.

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