TO:  Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education

FROM: Roger Barber, Deputy Commissioner for Academic & Student Affairs

RE: Faster Degree Options

DATE:  May 1, 2005

At a meeting of the Budget Committee, during the March 2005 Board of Regents' meeting, Chairman Mercer apparently asked if the Montana University System had any programs in place that would permit students to complete their degree requirements more quickly. Although I did not attend the Budget Committee discussions, I believe Chairman Mercer used the phrase "faster degree" programs or options.

Sheila Stearns reminded everyone about the information request at the April 2005 Campus Advisory Group meeting, and several people came up with specific suggestions. I also asked all of the Chief Academic Officers to provide me with ideas. The following information was submitted:

1)       Program-Specific Examples.

Accelerated programs for specific degrees are rare.  Only two examples were provided by the campuses that make up the Montana University System.  They are:

  •  a program at Montana Tech of The University of Montana that permits students to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in either Chemistry or Biology in three (3) years. The program was developed to assist students who need a bachelor of science degree in order to apply for medical school, since that professional achievement requires a significant number of years of education. Students do have to attend one summer session to complete the three-year program.
  • a program at Montana State University-Billings College of Technology, primarily for working adults, that permits them to earn a two-year degree or certificate with a business emphasis, in 12 - 18 months. Students can take coursework during the usual semester-long term, in the summer, and during the session between fall and spring semester. Classes are frequently offered at night, on weekends, and on-line, to accommodate students' work schedules. Credit may also be given for prior work experience.


2)       System-Wide Examples.

Students also have several other options to accelerate completion of their degree requirements. Most of these options are obvious, and not unique to the Montana University System. They include:

  • year-round attendance, utilizing summer session offerings to pick up general education and elective credits especially. Some campuses also have a special academic term between fall and spring semesters, where students could earn a few credits.
  • enrollment in more than 15 credits during a typical semester. Most degree programs require students to complete 15 credits every semester to graduate in a two-year or four-year timeframe. Completing more than 15 credits during a semester obviously shortens that time.
  • utilization of "dual credit" opportunities, while still in high school. High school students can earn as much as a year's worth of postsecondary credits, through such programs as running start, early start/jump start, tech prep and advanced placement. Montana State University-Bozeman recently approved a policy that could give students, who complete the International Baccalaureate program at Flathead High School, admission to the institution as a sophomore.

As part of a System-wide initiative in the mid-1990s, the campuses enacted "time to degree" programs that guaranteed completion of a degree in two or four years. To participate in the guarantee, students have to develop a program of study with their advisors that carefully sets out their classes, semester by semester. In return, those students are "guaranteed" a seat in the classes they need to complete their credential. The program does require students to stick to the semester-by-semester program of study, to successfully complete all of their classes, and to remain in school. Student participation in the program is mixed. It appears to work well in the first year or two of study, when students use the "guaranteed seat" to get into popular or high demand classes. At The University of Montana-Missoula, 5,950 have signed up for the program during its 10-year history. Just over 2,000 of those students started the program in recent years, so their four years have not elapsed. A total of 491 students have completed their degree requirements in the four-year timeframe since the inception of the program in 1995, and 16 actually completed their degree requirements in less than four years. The story on most of the other campuses is different, however. Most students who sign up for the program eventually abandon it because of the inflexibility of the program and other demands on their time, and only a handful of students have used the guarantee to complete their degree requirements in a timely fashion.


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