Academics convene at Georgetown to discuss the future of three-year bachelor’s degrees

Stakeholders from a dozen higher education institutions recently gathered at Georgetown University’s Alumni House to discuss their plans for piloting three-year bachelor’s degree programs, Inside Higher Ed reports. Such efforts wouldn’t simply squeeze the traditional 120-credit, four-year course load into three years. Rather, the participating colleges are working to reimagine the bachelor’s program entirely so that students would graduate with comparable learning outcomes, having earned around 90-100 credits.

Proponents of exploring a three-year bachelor’s degree option say that it could reduce college costs and improve student outcomes. While the idea of an accelerated degree is not new, the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant financial and enrollment challenges have spurred some educators to consider new approaches.

“The four-year degree isn’t working for a lot of people,” Lori Carrell, the chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Rochester, told attendees at the Georgetown sessions, which were sponsored by Strada Education Foundation. Carrell and Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and long-time proponent of the three-year college degree, discussed their efforts to work with institutions willing to explore three-year degree options. Together, they lead College in 3, a coalition of institutions committed to building pilot programs.

Support and setbacks for three-year bachelor’s programs

Georgetown University is among 12 public and private U.S. institutions that are pursuing pilot programs exploring three-year-degree alternatives and is in the early stages, according to Inside Higher Ed. Other institutions, such as Merrimack College, Brigham Young University of Idaho, and University of Minnesota at Rochester have proposals ready for accreditors’ approval—with each institution taking its own approach to a three-year degree program.

However, three-year programs with reduced credit loads face several roadblocks. Although some accreditors say they will consider approving three-year programs, many of them currently require bachelor’s programs to have no fewer than 120 credits. Approval of three-year bachelor’s degree programs also could require changes to some state laws: California and Pennsylvania are among several states that require a minimum of 120 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree.

There are also potential implications for transfer pathways, questions about how three-year degrees will be perceived by graduate programs, and the longstanding tradition of a 120-hour bachelor’s program.

Despite potential hindrances, Carrell and Zemsky say they hope to partner with lawmakers and increase the number of colleges and universities pursuing three-year bachelor’s degree pilot programs from a dozen as it currently stands to 500 in the next five years. Advocates hope that with the challenges facing higher education, academic leaders and policymakers are increasingly open to exploring new models that could expand educational access.

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