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Three higher education trends to watch

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The higher education landscape has been changing for years. 

From transfer and retention woes to a forecasted enrollment cliff among 18-20 year-olds, colleges have made a number of operational and policy changes to remain relevant in an increasingly dynamic world. 

While the pandemic may have accelerated some of these changes, what’s clear is that these shifts are the underpinning of an even larger move to attract students, award credentials, and prepare students for future jobs. 

Below, we’ve highlighted three higher education trends developing or iterating across the nation. These are just a few ways community colleges and universities are adapting to better serve students. 

Transfer partnership rooted in dual admissions

In 2018, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University partnered to launch a program for students intending to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree. 

ADVANCE, a program rooted in dual admissions, provides a clear pathway for transfer-seeking students, helping them finish their bachelor’s degree in a timely manner. Once ADVANCE students enroll at Northern Virginia, they are immediately accepted to George Mason University. 

ADVANCE students choose between 85 academic pathways. The pathway listings show students the courses needed for their NOVA degree and bachelor’s degree at Mason, along with academic milestones and specific program requirements. 

The program boasts multiple benefits, including major cost savings, assurance of credits transferring, specialized ADVANCE coaches, and access to recreational facilities, sporting, and cultural events at both NOVA and Mason. Students may also be eligible to complete select courses at Mason while still attending NOVA.

ADVANCE has been featured on PBS as a national transfer model and was spotlighted by the U.S. Department of Education during their 2023 student transfer summit. 

According to EdSource, over 1,500 ADVANCE students have successfully transferred to the university since the program’s launch, and more than 90% of students graduate within two years of transferring.

Community colleges offering bachelor’s degrees

California community colleges are set to offer six new bachelor’s degree programs. The addition brings the total number of bachelor’s degree programs across the system to 39, according to a March press release. The bachelor’s degree program launched in 2014 and became permanent in 2021. 

Most of the six new programs are health care related and include degrees in respiratory care, paramedicine, and dental hygiene — all of which are in high-demand career fields. 

The press release noted that by expanding these programs, the system was able to broaden its reach of “higher education and skill development to a greater number of students.” 

Expanding the number of bachelor’s degree programs is part of the California Community Colleges strategic plan with “equitable baccalaureate attainment being one of three strategic directions.”

A report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project said the bachelor’s program is one way the system can address equity gaps across the higher education continuum. And a report from UC Davis showed that half of graduates from the bachelor’s degree program said they would not have pursued a bachelor’s degree if they had not been able to complete it at the community college. 

It’s important to note that bachelor’s degrees offered by the California Community College system are exclusive to the system and do not duplicate bachelor’s degrees offered at California State University or University of California.

Three-year bachelor’s degrees

The potential to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years is gaining momentum across the country. 

In April, college administrators, faculty leaders, and accreditors gathered to discuss and share progress on their efforts to create three-year bachelor’s degrees. 

College-in-3, a group encouraging a redesign of the traditional bachelor’s degree, has convened this national effort. The group and their pilot institution participants say the traditional bachelor’s degree doesn’t work for everyone. The idea is to reduce academic credits, thus cutting student costs and providing a chance for students to join the job market much sooner. 

Though interest exists, accreditation has been slow. According to a news release from Inside Higher Ed, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities approved three-year bachelor’s degree programs last year but said it would not approve others until they see outcomes. 

Indiana’s legislature approved a bill in March that would require four-year public colleges to develop three-year degree options by 2025.

Inside Higher Ed reported that last month, Tom Bordenkircher, vice president of accreditation relations at the Higher Learning Commission, said starting in September, the agency will consider granting approval to any institution seeking to offer a “reduced-credit bachelor’s degree” in any program.

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.