A three-year bachelor’s without compromising the college experience?

As college enrollment declines and families seek a more efficient, affordable college experience, several U.S. colleges and universities are exploring the possibility of a three-year bachelor’s degree program, according to The Hechinger Report. A degree completed in three years rather than four would not only allow students to enter the job market or grad school sooner but also, in theory, substantially reduce students’ costs, Inside Higher Ed notes.

Proponents of offering accelerated college degree programs say they might attract students who no longer believe a college degree is necessary for employment or who are concerned about the time and money involved. Other stakeholders are urging caution, noting that a three-year model could disadvantage students unless institutions holistically reimagine the undergraduate curriculum.

‘Market pressure for a more efficient program’

Although some advocates have been pushing for accelerated programs for decades, colleges and universities have struggled to find a viable three-year model that incorporates the 120-credit hours required for a bachelor’s degree. The compressed timeline leaves little room for the extracurricular and social activities and internships that are part of a traditional four-year college experience. Furthermore, The Washington Post reports that the few students who participated in past attempts at three-year programs tended to opt out eventually, seeking additional time for study abroad experiences and campus activities.

Since the pandemic, however, students have shown renewed interest in reducing the amount of time it takes to earn a college degree, as well as renewed skepticism about higher education.

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In addition, U.S. colleges and universities are competing much harder than before for international students—and even American students—who are eyeing U.K. and E.U. colleges that already have a three-year model, says Mike Goldstein, managing director of the education consulting firm Tyton Partners. U.S. students also are increasingly graduating from high school having amassed some college credits—and expect to see a corresponding reduction in their time to a degree. “There’s absolutely a market pressure for a more efficient program,” Goldstein tells The Hechinger Report.

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What’s involved in a 3-year degree?

Seeing the appetite for a quicker, more cost-effective college education, several universities have initiated bachelor’s degree programs that condense 120 credit hours into three years. NewU, a new nonprofit university in Washington, D.C., is offering a three-year bachelor’s degree for $16,500 a year; it will welcome its inaugural class this August, according to The Hechinger Report. To fit students’ credit hours into three years, NewU has lengthened semesters to 18 weeks.

Some four-year colleges also are offering fast-track bachelor’s degrees, including the University of Montana, which has a Degree in 3 Program, and Adelphi University, which has introduced the three-year bachelor’s degree in Business program. The programs target highly motivated students willing to add summer courses and/or classes during the winter sessions.

Other institutions are rethinking the entire 120-credit-hour model entirely. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which created the 120-credit-hour rule, has said since 1993 that it is “obsolete” and that institutions should “bury” it. One new initiative, called College in 3, is exploring a 90-credit program, hoping to shorten the path to a degree without asking students to sacrifice the college experience. Led by Robert Zemksy, founding director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, and Lori Carrell, chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Rochester, College in 3 is working with 13 participating private and public colleges and universities that have pledged to consider the possibility.

Noting that a change to 90 credits would need approval from accrediting agencies, college athletic associations, and graduate admissions officers, Inside Higher Ed reports that the U.S. Department of Education has said it likely would not contest the approach if institutions can demonstrate learning commensurate with current bachelor’s degree offerings.

Would all students benefit?

However, it is important to consider the equity implications of an accelerated program, says Randy Bass, vice president for strategic education initiatives at Georgetown University. The pandemic, he says, “made everybody rethink time and the value proposition,” creating “a sense that we need to do something because we’re losing so many people out of the system.”

Ultimately, “it would be a loss” to just cram 120 credits into a three-year degree, Bass says—and a disservice to first-generation students, who need more time than well-resourced peers who often come to campus with existing credits and greater familiarity with higher education. “Just thinking in terms of speed or pace is not serving that [first-generation student] population,” he says.

Bass suggests that 108 credits across three years, rather than 90, could be a more feasible option. That would mean 15 credits per semester, with 6 credits earned each summer through internships and other work experience.

Related: 5 best practices for supporting first-generation, low-income students >

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