Lee University has found a way to make graduation easier for its nearly 5,000 students. Just reduce the hours needed to graduate.
It's just that simple, but it wasn't simple to accomplish, officials said. It was "painstakingly developed" by a task force of faculty and administrators, they said.
In truth, the Cleveland, Tenn., private school has cut its required hours from 130 to 120 to follow a national trend of colleges and universities trying to assist students to graduate in four years or less.
Lee is to be applauded in this effort to make bachelor's degrees more accessible, which is not only a boon for the students who will have a quicker shot at taking their education and training to the next level but also for the parents laying out tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.
It also ties in well with Gov. Bill Haslam's Drive to 55 initiative, which seeks to increase the percentage of Tennesseans holding at least an associate degree by 2025.
The 120-hours requirement is standard for many schools, Dr. Debbie Murray, Lee's vice president for academic affairs, said on Tuesday. It's what the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, for instance, requires of its bachelor's degree graduates.
In recent years, other schools have done what Lee is doing. Emory University in Atlanta reduced its requirements from 128 to 124 beginning with the fall 2013 term, and Loyola University dropped its requirements from 128 to 120 in 2011.
"It's the whole climate," Murray said. "It's a national and state trend to not only give students access but to make sure they finish."
Lee found ways to make the cut without sacrificing distinctive courses related to its mission as a Christ-centered university, its service learning component and its global perspectives component.
In the end, according to Murray, it made "tiny little shaves" by eliminating computer skills and physical education requirements and reducing its freshman orientation course. Six hours overall came out of the general education core and four in various ways from individual degree programs.
The task force, she said, examined requirements at similar schools and made sure Lee is still in compliance with requirements of its regional accrediting agency
"The value of this process," Murray said, "is it helped us look at those components in our curriculum, to affirm areas we wanted to maintain. It was a good process."
She couldn't say whether it was a cost savings for the university but noted it was "certainly something our CFO [chief financial officer] is concerned about." However, if fewer classes are offered and fewer teachers needed, some savings are likely to accrue.
"We have some good quality programs and want students to come and graduate, if this is where they want to be," Murray said. "It [the fewer hours] looks better to some students."
However, she said tuition -- $6,600 per semester for commuter students and $10,700 for on-campus students for 2013-2014 -- would not decrease.