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NU co-ops offered 4-year degrees

Some ask if shorter program hurts students

Kaitlin Ostrander, a Northeastern junior majoring in health science, wants to finish in four years because she plans to go to medical school. Kaitlin Ostrander, a Northeastern junior majoring in health science, wants to finish in four years because she plans to go to medical school. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / December 9, 2009

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Northeastern University will adapt its century-old co-op program to allow students to graduate in four years, instead of five, with less work experience under their belts.

The university, whose signature program has launched the careers of tens of thousands of Bostonians, is shifting toward four-year degrees beginning next fall in response to student demand, said school officials, who will announce the move today.

The plan marks a significant change for the former commuter school, which used to admit nearly all who applied. Over the past decade, Northeastern has transformed into a selective research institution that attracts higher-caliber students, many of whom find five years of an undergraduate education daunting because they plan to pursue graduate degrees.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all,’’ President Joseph Aoun said in an interview. “Universities have built their curriculums based on what we, as faculty, need to dispense as knowledge. But we’re shifting to a student-centered approach to education.’’

Under the plan, students who want to graduate in four years would take more courses online to squeeze in two six-month stints of full-time work experience. Most Northeastern students now have three six-month co-ops terms during their five years.

The five-year program will remain an option, though Aoun predicts that within three years, the majority at Northeastern will finish in four. Currently, 17 percent graduate in four years, but they typically leave with little or no co-op experience.

The change will “move fast, very fast,’’ Aoun said. “In many ways, these things are viral. It’ll spread like wildfire.’’

The university’s co-op program was developed in 1909 for vocational purposes, preparing graduates for jobs in industry. But it has morphed into a cornerstone of a Northeastern education by tying students’ real-world experiences to the classroom.

As more schools across the country consider three-year bachelor degrees, though, it might become harder for schools like Northeastern to persuade students of the value of staying in school for five years, said Stephen W. Director, Northeastern’s provost.

Kaitlin Ostrander, a junior majoring in health science, said she is graduating in four years because she plans to go to medical school and then a residency, followed by a fellowship in oncology or palliative care.

“It just seemed daunting to take on five years of school,’’ she said. But the upstate New York native applied to Northeastern anyway because of its emphasis on experiential learning.

Since June, Ostrander has been working at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where she has helped develop a continuing medical education course for health care providers on surviving cancer, among other projects. She was able to fit in one six-month co-op term and graduate in four years because she entered with enough Advanced Placement credits to place out of five introductory classes her freshman year.

“For many students, Northeastern is not their last stop on the educational train,’’ Ostrander said. “It’s nice to know there are options.’’

Students do not pay tuition while on a co-op term, but those who graduate in four years would be able to save a year’s worth of room and board.

In moving toward four-year degrees, the university, which began exploring the option last fall, was wary of watering down the co-op experience into a glorified summer internship, and wanted to preserve a rigorous academic curriculum, Director said.

Students will get more academic advice to ensure they make the most of their four years.

“We’re not trying to make the curriculum less demanding, but we need to restructure how it’s being delivered,’’ Director said.

In recent years, Northeastern has introduced overseas co-op programs in such countries as Nepal and Singapore, offered joint-degree options, and given students the chance to complete a master’s degree during students’ fifth year.

The university is in the midst of developing dozens of new online courses in anticipation of students flocking to the four-year degrees, said Bruce Ronkin, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

An advanced-writing class, previously taught only in the classroom, will now be offered online so students away on a co-op term can take it in the evening. A music major working in the event-planning office of the Chicago Symphony would be able to study music history online, he said. Other details are still being ironed out.

“The four-year option is a way to offer flexibility to students and to continue to improve what we’re doing,’’ Ronkin said. “It’s the right next step as we talk to prospective students and they tell us what they want.’’

Some specialists in co-op education are skeptical that students can receive a meaningful co-op experience in only four years.

Kettil Cedercreutz - associate provost and director of co-op programs at the University of Cincinnati, the oldest co-op school in the country - said the university would not consider anything less than a five-year program. Studies by the school have shown that students experience the most growth in the final six months of 18 months on the job. That is when students have gained enough skills to run independent projects and can really make a difference, he said.

“So the question becomes: If you were to systematically kill that last year, would the employers be that interested anymore, because now the co-op is completely introductory?’’ asked Cedercreutz.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.