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How to graduate college in three years: UMR program part of new trend to speed up degrees

The University's program, NXT GEN MED, seeks to accelerate the academic process. With its focus on health care, the idea is to get college graduates out the door and into the workforce faster and more cheaply than in the past.

University of Minnesota Rochester NXT GEN MED Program
Akhil Kollengode is a first year student in University of Minnesota Rochester's NXT GEN MED program. Kollengode is pictured Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, on the UMR campus in downtown Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Like many people at his stage of life, Mayo High School graduate Akhil Kollengode was tempted to leave Rochester and explore a higher educational climate away from home.

But in the end, Kollengode, 18, opted to stay close to home and attend the University of Minnesota Rochester.

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A big factor in his decision-making? UMR’s new accelerated health sciences program that puts Kollengode on course to wrap up his bachelor's degree in two and a half years instead of four.

If all goes according to plan, Kollengode will be handed his college degree in December 2024, while his peers at other colleges will still be grinding away, a year and a half away from graduation.

What’s more, he will shave off a semester’s worth of costs from his total college price tag: about $15,000.

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His peers, Kollengode said, are often “amazed” when he tells them about the unorthodox college path he’s taking. He delights in getting their agape reactions, but his motivation is more fundamental.

“I wanted to go straight into the work field within the shortest amount of time possible,” Kollengode said.

Kollengode is one of 10 freshmen enrolled in a new program at UMR called NXT GEN MED . With its focus on health care, the idea is to get college graduates out the door and into the workforce faster and more cheaply than in the past.

University of Minnesota Rochester NXT GEN MED Program
Akhil Kollengode is a first year student in University of Minnesota Rochester's NXT GEN MED program. Kollengode is pictured Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, on the UMR campus in downtown Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Accelerated degree programs or three-year degree options are not entirely new. They have been tried before. Many foundered for lack of student interest.

At colleges where it has been tried, educators realized that there were downsides to the faster pace. College is often viewed as a time of emotional as well as academic growth. And the compressed time frame was viewed as sacrificing one of the main selling points of a four-year program: the opportunity to grow as a person.

But amid mounting pressure for higher education to change, the three-year option is getting a new look. And one of the universities taking the lead in this budding experiment is UMR, led by Chancellor Lori Carrell.

Over the last year, she and Robert Zemsky, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, have recruited more than a dozen institutions to explore creating a three-year bachelor’s degree program.

“The challenge (is how do we change) higher ed so that more students succeed and the costs go down,” Carrell said. “Those are challenges shared across all kinds of campuses — private, public, for-profit. Everybody is concerned about these issues and looking for ideas.”

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What’s called the “ College in 3 ” project is creating enough of a national buzz that the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a story about the new initiative and UMR’s role in driving it.

This new receptivity by students and schools to a three-year option, officials say, is being driven by higher education's biggest bugaboo: skyrocketing costs that burden students with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. President Joe Biden underscored the problem when he recently announced his $500 billion student loan forgiveness plan that brought forth both joy and consternation.

071520.N.RM.LORI.CARRELL.02224.jpg
University of Minnesota Rochester Chancellor Lori Carrell in July 2020 in Rochester.
Post Bulletin file photo

It brought sighs of relief from college graduates who benefited from the government largess. But for those who paid off their loans or didn’t attend college, it was seen a shifting of the financial burden to those who had exercised financial restraint and non-college goers.

Over the last 30 years, average tuition and fees have jumped by $6,580 at public, four-year colleges, and by $18,710 at private, nonprofit four-year institutions, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Average net price — the price students pay out of pocket after accounting for institutional and federal aid — has also increased in that time, the chronicle said.

Three-year programs come in different shapes and sizes. One reason for their lack of popularity is the workload it imposes on students. It takes a singular focus for a college student to earn a college degree in three years. It often means overloading on credits during the fall and spring semesters and working through the summer.

Others are looking at redesigning the undergraduate curriculum so it will allow summer breaks and holidays and on-campus experience.

UMR takes kind of a middle approach. Students at UMR take classes during the summer terms, though they still get breaks between fall and spring and between spring and summer.

Instead of taking semester courses, some of students' courses are packaged in a block-scheduling format. That means subjects are taught in seven-week terms rather than the traditional 14-week semester so “they are doing the courses more quickly,” Carrell said.

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Its newness is what appealed to Kelsey DeSmith, an 18-year-old from Walnut Grove, Minn., one of the 10 students in the inaugural class. She said she wants to learn about the business side of the medical field.

University of Minnesota Rochester NXT GEN MED Program
Kelsey DeSmith is a first year student in University of Minnesota Rochester's NXT GEN MED program. Kollengode is pictured Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, on the UMR campus in downtown Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“It’s helping patients in an indirect way,” DeSmith said. “And I really, really liked that. I wanted to use my skills and education to help people.”

Having graduated from high school with a class of 19 students, DeSmith was used to small class sizes and one-on-one interactions with teachers. A paid internship at Mayo Clinic was also a big draw.
“It’s a new program, and they want it to succeed,” DeSmith said. “You’re gonna get more help.”

That UMR is in the vanguard of the "College in 3" project is not exactly a surprise. In 2006, when it was designated an official campus of the University of Minnesota system, UMR was given a blank slate to rewrite the undergraduate experience based on best practices.

A core of UMR’s identity remains faculty research — what works in the classroom. Now pressure for change in higher education is coming from different directions: families and students looking for value, industry looking for workers and talent. And the nimble-footed will be best placed to benefit from this new environment.

Andy Petzold-1_0.jpg
Andy Petzold, University of Minnesota Rochester faculty director of NXT GEN MED.
Contributed / University of Minnesota Rochester

“This is a moment ripe for innovation,” Carrell said. “At the top of the list are critical demands in our sector, health care, as well as so many other sectors. So that’s putting pressure on for acceleration. And yet, the pressure related to cost is also there.”

Andy Petzold, UMR faculty director of NXT GEN MED, recalls a quote by former University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler when he compared UMR to a speedboat, the system to a dreadnought.

“The University of Minnesota Twin Cities takes a really long time to turn into a new direction. And UMR has the ability (to turn faster), partially because of our size and partially because of our academic focus.”

Although described as pilots at other universities, UMR projects that three-year degree options will permanently be part of its future.

“We’re going to learn from students and the process, so that we can keep evolving,” Carrell said. “In terms of enrollment, we would anticipate scaling (up). What that will mean? We don’t know yet.”

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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