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Thinking Outside the 4-Year Degree: Dual-Degree and Combined-Degree Programs

When you think of college, do you picture a 4-year program? Most of us do because that was the experience we had–four years to complete a bachelor’s degree. (Although today, only 41% of first-time, full-time college students will complete their undergraduate degree in four years.) If we pursued a graduate program, that was an additional two years of schooling. Today’s students have some options available to take a more creative approach. Dual-degree, combined-degree, or 3/2 programs can all be options to get multiple bachelor’s degrees (ex. a liberal arts BA and an engineering BS) at the same time or completing a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years as opposed to six or more. These programs provide some overlap and ease of transition to help your clients think outside the box.

What do these programs look like?

3/2 Combined-Degree Programs

3/2 programs are not new, but in a world of high college costs and competition for employment, they have received a new focus. These programs result in two undergraduate degrees in a total of five years. Although different colleges can use the terminology “3/2” in different ways, the general usage is when a student earns a liberal arts degree from one college and then earns a separate engineering degree from another college.

An example locally would be Ohio Wesleyan University’s Pre-Engineering program. Students spend their first three years at OWU taking science, math, and liberal arts coursework. They then transfer to an engineering school like Case Western Reserve, California Institute of Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute or Washington University in St. Louis (among others) who have a cooperative agreement with OWU.

The (cooperative) agreements are born of the belief that the liberal arts experience benefits engineers, personally and professionally. They provide students with the advantage of studying at a liberal arts college for three years while also providing them with entry into some of the nation’s best engineering schools.

3/2 Program Choices

At OWU, students obtain a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Physics, Pre-Chemical Engineering, Pre-Computer Engineering, or Biomedical Engineering. They complete their BA degree in three years and finish one of the below engineering programs in the remaining two:

Biomedical Engineering (Botany-Microbiology; Zoology)
Chemical, Ceramic, Environmental Engineering (Chemistry)
Computer, Electrical Engineering (Mathematics and Computer Science, Physics/Astronomy)
Aeronautical, Ceramic, Civil, Computer, Electrical, Electronic, Environmental, Industrial, Materials, Mechanical, Nuclear Engineering (Physics/Astronomy)

Case Western Reserve, a popular engineering school, has partnerships with 50+ undergraduate liberal arts colleges. Washington University in St. Louis has an even more extensive list of affiliate schools.

Benefits of a 3/2 Combined-Degree Program

Employers recognize the value to creativity and critical thinking in their future engineers. Engineers with a liberal arts background can also write papers, make presentations, and think beyond the engineering. Also, students have the advantage of smaller classrooms in some of those first-year math and science classes. In popular engineering colleges, those first-year classes are HUGE. Students can get lost and struggle academically.

Accelerated Bachelor’s/Master’s Combined-Degree Programs

Some career paths require a master’s degree, but making the choice to pay for more schooling can be frightening. Some careers benefit from the jump start a master’s degree can provide. Accountants can meet the education requirement (150 hours) to become a CPA. Research chemists need to have at least a master’s degree as well. Having a master’s degree gives those interested in healthcare management a jump start in jobs that could be open to them.

Your client’s student could overlap and take some grad school classes during their undergrad. Seems like a great idea if your client’s student is considering a graduate degree. Courses earn dual credit counting towards both their bachelor’s and their master’s degrees. Accelerated programs provide that fast track, changing six years into five. Paying for five years instead of six seems like a no-brainer.

Let’s look at another Ohio college and their accelerated program. Kent State University has a well-known fashion merchandising program. Students obtain a Bachelor’s of Science in Fashion Merchandising which “gives students a thorough background in the business aspects of the fashion industry, whereby they develop competencies in fashion theory; retail operations; management and buying; fashion forecasting and promotion; merchandising for apparel manufacturing; and the development and marketing of fashion goods.” They can combine that BS degree with an MBA. Twelve credit hours of graduate coursework can be taken during their senior year, leaving only 18 more credits to be completed after graduation for the MBA degree.

Creighton University is another example of a college with multiple accelerated choices. Some allow the fifth year to be completed online thus saving even more money.

Benefits of an Accelerated Bachelor’s/Master’s Program

Entrance into master’s degree programs is competitive. However, pursuing a combined program at one college can make that path easier. Students aren’t applying as outside students. The GPA requirement must be met, but students don’t need to take the GRE exam. They don’t need to pay an application fee. Students can get a jump start on the academic requirements of more advanced careers and the long term earning potential for people with master’s degrees is better.

Potential Pitfalls

Be aware students must work carefully with their advisor from the start of their freshmen year to stay on track with the coursework for an accelerated program. Students also must be sure of their path before starting. For engineering colleges, your client’s student may need a certain GPA in order to transfer into their program–admission is not guaranteed. In addition, master’s programs also may require a “B” in those dual credit courses.

Paying for Extended Combined-Degree Programs

That’s more than four years! Can your client’s afford that?! Families need as much careful consideration and advanced planning as any other college education. Will taking a 3/2 program be an exact match for a student’s traits and interests and match up with their preferred future career? Will a master’s degree in a certain major be a real jump start and career advantage to justify any additional cost?

After a student graduates from one program, they do have to apply for financial aid again. A student may be independent at that point (no longer reliant on mom and dad) and qualify for more aid if their income is low. Graduate level classes taken during the last year of undergrad can be paid for with undergrad scholarships, students are double-dipping earning credit in two places for one set of classes.

Students still need to weigh their return on investment for additional years of schooling. Will the jump in salary cover the cost of extra schooling and the lost income they miss when they don’t enter the workforce right away? If the answer is “yes,” then an accelerated, combined-degree course of study may be a good idea to explore.