Colleges weigh three-year degree programs

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Like many high school seniors, Grant Austin R. Simms was bombarded with marketing materials from colleges that showed euphoric students enjoying athletics, extracurricular clubs and campus life.

What he really wanted to know was how long his degree would take and how much it would cost.

“What’s missing when people are talking to high school students about college is the reality of it — the financial aspect,” Simms said. “Nobody talks about that.”

Simms was speaking in the light-filled but otherwise mostly empty classroom-sized space in a co-working building in downtown D.C. that in August will welcome an expected 50 to 70 members of the inaugural class of NewU University, where he ultimately decided to enroll.

A rare brand-new nonprofit university, NewU has a comparatively low $16,500 annual price that is locked in for a student’s entire education.

But the feature that appears to be winning over applicants is that NewU will offer bachelor’s degrees in three years instead of the customary four.

“Consumers are definitely ready for something different,” said Stratsi Kulinski, president of the start-up college.

A handful of conventional colleges and universities are coming to the same conclusion. Several are adding three-year degrees as students and families increasingly chafe at the more than four years it now takes most of those earning bachelor’s degrees to finish — and the resulting additional cost.

“There’s absolutely a market pressure for a more efficient program,” said Mike Goldstein, managing director of the education consulting firm Tyton Partners.

This is not the first time three-year degrees have trended. The topic last came to public attention about a decade ago, when legislatures in Washington state and elsewhere ordered public universities to develop some as a way of lowering the cost of tuition.

But it mostly did not take. Faculty did not like the idea of speeding things up, and students resisted cramming their schedules so full that they would miss out on the other experiences depicted in those marketing brochures.

Momentum now appears to be returning.

Thirteen colleges and universities have agreed to consider three-year degrees in at least some majors as part of a program called College in 3, prodded by University of Minnesota Rochester Chancellor Lori Carrell and Robert Zemsky, founding director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and a longtime advocate of three-year degrees.

These include Utica College, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Merrimack College, New England College, Portland State University, Slippery Rock University, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

Other institutions are launching three-year degrees this fall, often combined with graduate education so students can earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the four years it traditionally takes to earn only a bachelor’s.

Part of the renewed interest, these institutions say, is a response to a pandemic-induced feeling of impatience among students, parents and employers.

“There is an increasing number of students who want to get their credential and enter the world of work really quickly,” said Brian Reed, associate vice provost at the University of Montana, which lets students earn bachelor’s degrees in three years in majors including psychology, marketing and entrepreneurship.

Other universities see three-year degrees as a way to compete in the struggle for declining numbers of students, including those being lured away by faster-paced training programs such as coding schools, or questioning the need to go to college at all. More than a third of Americans without degrees don’t believe that getting additional education would help them find a job, according to a survey by the Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights. That’s almost triple the proportion from before the pandemic.

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“Those are existential challenges to traditional bricks-and-mortar education,” said Kristin Tichenor, vice president for enrollment at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, which has rolled out three-year bachelor’s degrees in applied math and computer science.

Offering accelerated combined bachelor’s and master’s degrees also helps keep undergraduates from leaving for graduate study; those who stay provide universities with essential revenue.

Three-year degrees can appeal to another important market for U.S. universities: international students being lost to competitor nations where bachelor’s degrees already take three years instead of four.

“That’s a three-year model that’s automatically a quarter less expensive,” Goldstein said.

American students, too, are heading to those foreign universities. Last year, nearly 51,000 were pursuing full degrees at universities abroad, the vast majority in Europe, according to the Institute of International Education.

Meanwhile, the growing number of college credits earned by American high school students through Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment courses is giving many of them a head start toward earning bachelor’s degrees more quickly.

Already, 12 percent of full-time private and 10 percent of full-time public university and college students are finishing four-year degrees within three years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“I know exactly what I want to do when I graduate. So graduating early will just save me a ton of money,” said Leah Easton, 20, who is on track to finish her degree at Utica in 3 1/2 years.

There remain obstacles to expanding three-year degree programs, though. Students worry they’ll miss out on the fun parts of college, for instance.

Faculty also worry that such a change would “cheapen the degree,” Zemsky said.

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So sensitive is this that one of the institutions participating in the College in 3 project asked the others not to publicly identify it. Faculty at another balked at creating three-year degrees in the staple disciplines of English, history, philosophy and political science.

Less hidebound institutions, such as Wentworth, which started as a trade school and did not grant bachelor’s degrees until 1970 and master’s degrees until 2009, are better equipped to try these kinds of changes, Tichenor said.

In higher education, “there are often really good ideas that never make it to fruition because of the inertia that we know and love in the academy,” she said.

The biggest challenge is how to fit the requirements of a bachelor’s degree designed to take four years into three.

Most three-year degree programs simply try to squeeze the usual 120 credits into three years, meaning students have to take extra courses each semester and often more in the summers. That’s the model at Wentworth and the University of Montana.

“There are days when I will go without sleeping,” said Alyssa Russette, who, at 27, is trying to finish a bachelor’s degree in three years at Montana while also working and raising a 4-year-old son. “Caffeine is a big motivator.”

NewU is trying a different approach: lengthening semesters to 18 weeks so that students earn four instead of three credits per course. They will take fewer courses but cover more content in each one, said Kulinski, former president of the American University in Bulgaria who also worked as an executive at TiVo.

Zemsky and his colleagues are proposing something even more radical: that students be allowed to graduate with 90 credits instead of that traditional 120. This will require buy-in from regulators, accreditors and graduate school admissions offices.

Policymakers say they sense a mood for reform.

Higher education’s many challenges make this “a moment to talk about things,” Zemsky said.

There remain questions about who would benefit from three-year degrees — first-generation and low-income students often stymied by the cost and duration of college, or those from well-resourced private or suburban public high schools that offer college-level AP and dual-enrollment credits.

“The three-year degree movement runs the risk of not helping the populations we want to help,” said Randy Bass, vice president for strategic education initiatives at Georgetown University.

At Georgetown’s research and development lab, Bass is also considering how universities can plan credential pathways that confer combined bachelor’s and master’s degrees more quickly.

“The pandemic, the shift to online, was such a radical experience that it’s made everybody rethink time and the value proposition,” said Bass, surrounded by whiteboard walls and tables on which he scribbles questions and ideas.

For him, the sweet spot would be lowering the bachelor’s degree requirement to 108 credits over three years — 15 per semester, plus six each summer earned from internships or work experience.

However things pan out, advocates are hopeful that the renewed activity around three-year degrees will lead to wider acceptance of them.

Grant Austin Simms isn’t waiting. He expects his bachelor’s degree three years after he starts school at NewU in the fall and isn’t bothered that there won’t be dorms, athletics or college parties.

“My focus,” he said, “is the education.”

This story about three-year degrees was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.