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Weighing the Pros and Cons of 3-Year Degree Programs

May 25, 2022

Higher education institutions are seeing renewed interest in three year bachelor’s degree programs, according to Jon Marcus of The Washington Post. Many three year degree programs simply fit four years worth of credits into three years, writes Marcus. These programs are not a new trend. Universities in other countries have long offered these shorter degree programs. For example, a standard bachelor’s degree in the United Kingdom takes three years to complete. Marcus further writes that some universities in the United States tried implementing such a program about a decade ago, when legislatures in Washington state and elsewhere ordered public universities to create these programs to lower tuition costs. However, the programs largely failed. The current resurgence in interest in these programs stems from “market pressure for a more efficient program,” Marcus quotes Mike Goldstein of Tyton Partners.

NewU University is a new non-profit university that will open its doors to students this fall. Jon Marcus met with the school’s president, Stratsi Kulinski, to learn about the start-up university. Many applicants are drawn to the 3-year bachelor degree programs offered by the new university, particularly because NewU’s tuition and fees add up to $6,500 per year. According to the school’s website, these programs won’t require students to attend summer sessions in order to complete 120 credit hours because the school is extending semesters by two weeks.

One of the marked characteristics of NewU is its admissions process. The school only considers applicants’ high school transcripts, similar to many universities in Europe that place heavy emphasis on academics. Decisions are also released in 24 hours. The university does not consider standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, or even essays.

A few other universities in the United States are also offering select shortened degree programs as families are struggling to afford the rising cost of tuition. These universities include the University of Montana, University of San Francisco, and Adelphi University. Marcus reports that at least thirteen other schools, including Utica College, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Merrimack College, New England College, and Portland State University “have agreed to consider three-year degrees in at least some majors.”

Pros and Cons of 3-Year Bachelor Degree Programs

Pros

At Command Education, we see many upsides to these newer three year bachelor’s programs.

1. Affordability

As the cost of tuition has rapidly increased over the last couple of decades, one of the most valuable benefits of three year degrees is their cost. Elizabeth Sayrs, executive vice president and provost at Ohio State University, explained to U.S. News that students who choose to graduate in three years save “the cost of an entire year of college as well as the opportunity cost of being out of the workforce.” At NewU, the cost of tuition and fees, $6,500 per year, will be locked in for all three years of study for students enrolled in Fall 2022. As explained on NewU’s website, the school offers “[significantly] lower tuition than the average for other private non-profit schools in the US.” Three year programs are a great option for students who want to go to college but cannot afford the increasingly steep price tag.

2. Who benefits most from 3 year degree programs?

There are multiple groups of people who would benefit from completing a shorter degree program. As previously mentioned, lower-income students would be able to save a year’s worth of tuition. Additionally, as noted by Marcus, these programs attract international students whose home universities already offer shorter programs. Finally, individuals who want to obtain a college degree but have other responsibilities, such as taking care of their families or who are already in the workforce, can earn their degrees faster.

3. Accelerated master’s programs

Lastly, more universities are offering accelerated combined bachelor’s and master’s programs that can be completed in four years, during which the first three years are dedicated to earning a bachelor’s degree and the final year is dedicated to earning a master’s degree. Universities also benefit from these programs. Marcus explains that these programs help “keep undergraduates from leaving for graduate study; those who stay provide universities with essential revenue.”

Cons

However, shortening a four-year degree to three years undoubtedly poses some challenges for students, administrators and universities at large. The shortened time and experience could lead to a “cheapened” degree, a faculty concern relayed to Marcus by Robert Zemsky, founding director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the UPenn Graduate School of Education. So what are the specific obstacles students and faculty would face?

1. Cramming credits

Though students can earn a degree in just three years, they must still complete the same number of credits. This requires squeezing 120 credits into three years instead of four, a rigorous timeline which can take a toll on the student’s grades and work-life balance. For example, both the Wentworth Institute of Technology and the University of Montana have adopted three year models in which students take additional courses every semester and often during summers, writes Marcus. According to Emma Whitford of Inside Higher Ed, students are also allowed to “pack” their four year degree into three at the University of Iowa. Whitford quotes the university’s website as stating that “the [Iowa Degree in Three] program is designed for students who come to Iowa with specific goals, have already earned some college credit, or are ready to complete more courses per term than average.”

2. Appealing for approval

In order to combat the first challenge, schools have suggested cutting down the number of credits required to earn a degree. While NewU is planning to lengthen semesters to last 18 weeks, allowing students to earn four credits per course instead of three, Zemsky calls for cutting the graduation requirement down to 90 credits from 120, which will require approval from policy regulators, accrediting agencies and graduate school admissions offices.

3. Missing out on the fun

Another concern is that students will be missing out on the full university experience during their shortened stay. This includes the time to explore academics and determine their preferred major. As such, the three year program is best suited for those who know what they want to study, and plan on getting out as soon as they can. Students will also miss out on the residential experience, as well as on networking through co-ops and internships, as noted by U.S. News. They won’t have time to take advantage of as many study abroad and research opportunities, and other activities that might serve to enrich their coursework.

While the surging interest in three year degree programs may be relatively new in the U.S., its efficacy has already been proven amongst institutions outside of the country. Essentially, the ROI of the shortened degree will largely depend on the student’s ability to remain self-motivated and on their willingness to forgo a significant portion of their undergraduate experience. However, with rising student debt levels and the role of the pandemic in popularizing different educational alternatives, this 3-year format might be the next trend to catch on. So, considering all of the pros and cons, is the three year degree right for you?