A recent vote by the Utah Board of Higher Education has placed Utah public colleges and universities on a path of offering three-year applied studies bachelor’s degrees in some disciplines, which one official says could better meet workforce needs and provide students with faster pathways into careers.

The new applied studies bachelor’s degree category would require a minimum of 90 credits to complete, 30 fewer than the 120 credits currently required for a four-year bachelor’s degree. As currently proposed, areas of study for a Bachelor of Applied Studies degree would be limited and tied to specific industry needs.

Aaron Skonnard, a member of the Utah Board of Higher Education, the overseer of Utah’s public colleges and universities, said in a statement, “This exciting change in policy opens the door to innovation on our campuses and allows each institution to develop proposals for three-year bachelor’s degree programs.”

New programs in the Bachelor of Applied Studies category will require national accreditation and must go through the program approval process with the Board of Higher Education to ensure the programs align with the mission and role of each Utah System of Higher Education institution before being made available to students.

The USHE system includes eight degree-granting colleges and universities and eight technical colleges.

Any certificates or degrees offered at USHE institutions need to meet required learning outcomes, provide value for students and be recognized and accepted by employers, a statement from the system said.

According to board documents, a task force that studied the proposed shortened bachelor degrees determined that several public colleges and universities in Utah are interested in possibly proposing shortened bachelor’s degrees in the future.

“However, there is no consensus across the institutional academic leadership that lowering the credit limits is a good idea. The task force unanimously recommended that if the board decides to lower credit limits, it should allow reduced credit requirements only in particular categories of bachelor’s degrees rather than in all bachelor’s degrees,” the memorandum stated.

Accreditation of such programs may not occur for several years. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities informed the Utah higher education system that it is not currently considering new requests to offer shortened bachelor’s degrees.

According to the memorandum, the accrediting organization has authorized pilots of shortened bachelor’s degrees offered through the BYU Pathways Program, beginning spring term 2024, which will run for three years.

“After assessing those three-year pilots, NWCCU will determine whether it will authorize shortened bachelor’s degrees at other institutions,” which may not occur until 2027, the memo states.

The Office of the Utah Commissioner of Higher Education has recommended that the higher education board study the proposal while the three-year pilots run their course “and then decide how to allow shortened bachelor’s degrees in policy to align with accreditor requirements.”

It also recommends that shortened degrees are “exceptions to standard bachelor’s degree structures.”