Is four years too long to earn a doctor of optometry degree? For some people it might be, and that’s one reason why the Salus University Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) is trying a new program that compresses the same education into a three-year program.
In July, PCO began its Scholars Program, described as a “year-round, campus-based curriculum for highly motivated and qualified students [that] is educationally equivalent to PCO’s traditional OD degree program.” There are just 10 students in the program now, and school leaders say future classes could have up to 15. The new program grew out of a growing concern about the time and cost involved in medical education, says Janice Scharre, OD, MA, FAAO, the university’s provost and vice president of academic affairs. A Carnegie Foundation report in 2010 highlighted the issues of the cost and time commitment involved in earning a medical degree, and PCO started looking at alternative approaches. A number of medical schools have created three-year programs, as have some schools of dentistry, she says. “The opportunity was there to take a look at what we could do in optometry.”
Students in the Scholars Program are not much different or more accomplished than those entering the traditional four-year program, she says. They are selected because they show an ability to handle an accelerated program that would require a high level of independent study. “It’s a different education model. There is much more interaction among the students, along with much more self-directed study,” she says.
The program was developed over two years of pilot studies, in which a handful of students in the traditional program were given a chance to accelerate their clinical skills and enter clinic five months earlier than their peers. “This is cutting nothing out. The credit value is the same; just the delivery is different,” says Melissa Trego, OD, PhD, associate dean of the Scholars Program.
Faculty has to deliver the information differently, Dr. Trego says. One key difference is that coursework takes a flipped-learning approach. “We teach students the clinical techniques first so they can get their hands on it, then teach the theory,” she says. “For example, after just two-and- a-half months, these students were already seeing patients in clinic under the guidance of Beth Tonkery, OD, MPH, director of clinical education of the Scholars Program, and other clinical faculty. The focus of the program is to provide close mentorship and group learning, as well as to investigate better ways to teach students of today and tomorrow.”
The new program isn’t destined to replace the traditional curriculum, Dr. Scharre says. One reason is that it’s more time-intensive, for both students and faculty. In fact, it can be so demanding that students who enter the Scholars Program are allowed an early opportunity to leave. Scholars Program participants start classwork on July 1, and at the end of the summer they can switch to the traditional four-year program if they want to. “They have an opportunity to say, ‘This isn’t a good fit for me,’” she says. The same is true for students who, because of changed personal circumstances outside of the classroom, find the pace of the program too rigorous.
The schedule is more demanding. There are shorter breaks during the academic year, and because there are so few students in the program, the pressure is high to contribute to the group experience. For now the tuition costs are based on three years, so there’s a 25 percent savings compared to a four-year program, “but we may not be able to promise it can stay that way,” says Lori Grover, OD, PCO’s dean. Yet even if it didn’t shrink the size of the student loan, the other benefit is that these new graduates can begin Dr. Grover working a year sooner.
One surprise so far is the background of the students. The expectation was that a three-year course of study would attract older applicants, those who had been working for a number of years, perhaps in a related profession, and wanted to launch a second career. Instead, “the students who are in our group are all in the same age group” as students in the traditional four-year program, Dr. Scharre says. “The alternative approach and the shorter time were big draws for them.”
The program has garnered some criticism. “There are people in the profession who think optometry education should be more than four years, so for them this is a very radical approach,” Dr. Scharre says. The response from her and other faculty is to emphasize that the amount of study and clinical training isn’t reduced; it is just delivered in a different format. “For some students, we think this is the way of the future for optometric education.”