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Concerns arise over more course-intensive professional programs

‘120 hour’ proposal could mean a faster degree, less expense

A new College Board proposal to limit bachelor’s degree programs at Mississippi’s institutions of higher learning to no more than 120 credit hours should not affect professional programs such as law or accounting, observers say. Changes would not go into effect until 2006 or later.

Roy Klumb, president of the board, said that the new regulation is proposed to help students graduate from college faster and with less expense. According to Klumb, the average student has 131 credit hours by the time they graduate from a Mississippi university.

“In theory, it will save the cost of one semester of school,” he said, noting that yearly tuition increases at all eight Mississippi state-supported schools are becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Klumb is looking to the successful reception of such a program in the Florida university system as a model for the Mississippi rule. Texas, Alabama, and Oklahoma university systems are investigating the benefits of such a rule as well.

The main benefit is that it creates room for more students to enroll in the university system without incurring extra expense, according to Klumb.

“If you get 30,000 students out 11 or 12 hours sooner, you have the capacity to serve another 2,700 students over the course of a four-year term,” he asserted.

Students who wind up taking more than 144 credit hours in programs not exempted from the rule will have to pay a tuition penalty, Klumb explained.

He believes that two factors account for the increasing length of college enrollments: “credit creep” in established degree programs and the tendency for unprepared students to change programs of study more frequently. “We have a lot of students coming into the university system that are totally unfocused.”

Peter Rabideau, vice president for academic affairs at Mississippi State University, agrees that students often come to universities unprepared for choosing a major, but he isn’t sure that the new rule will help those students be more focused.

“The system won’t work quite as well for those students — we’ll have to work harder to help them,” he said. “One concern is that if it lowers the number of general education courses, those are the courses that create educated people. We don’t want to shift the emphasis to strictly professional education.”

Dan Hollingsworth, director of the School of Accountancy at MSU, said that students currently take 128 hours to complete a bachelor’s of professional accounting and another 30 hours for an MPAcc or a master’s in taxation to meet certification criteria set by the State Board of Public Accountancy and the Certified Public Accountant exam.

“I would be some concerned if we had to cut back accounting hours with the global economy,” said Hollingsworth, noting also that such a move in the wake of accounting scandals at MCI WorldCom and Enron might not inspire confidence among the business profession.

Klumb did indicate that after each school’s programs are studied by the provosts for each campus, the board would consider exempting some course-intensive curricula from the rule.

“Obviously, things like engineering, law school, dental school are going to be exempted,” he said.

Rabideau agreed: “There are some areas where, due to accreditation or certification, more hours would be required. We should be able to make a case because of accreditation that accounting should be exempted.”

CPA Beth Burgess, an owner of Burgess, Crechale, and Necaise in Jackson, said that even while considering that the Certified Public Accounting exam requires that accounting students have completed the required 150 hours of courses, some in the profession think a relaxing of the requirement may be in order.

“There are a lot of people who feel having the additional requirements is a hindrance to recruiting students to the field,” she said. “When I talk to students, that’s not the case.”

If the rule receives a favorable vote from the College Board during their June meeting, the earliest it would be implemented is fall 2006, said Klumb, who admitted that the Legislature could pass a law keeping the rule from being enforced out of concern for academic quality, but he felt that the cost savings should be an incentive for the state not to do so.

“As poor a job as they’ve been doing giving us more money, I can’t see why they would interfere in our efforts to increase capacity,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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