As college prices move increasingly out of reach for low- and middle-income students, schools and states alike are on the hunt for cost-cutting solutions. Three-year bachelor's degrees, once an option at only a very few institutions, are slowly gaining more traction as more schools — such as Doane College in Nebraska and Purdue University in Indiana — add programs that start this fall. The financial advantages of condensing four years of coursework into three are substantial, but critics argue that students may suffer as a result. Here's how three-year degree programs work and how to evaluate whether they're right for you.
These programs each offer a strong financial incentive for students, but that's about all they collectively have in common. Colleges each craft their own methods of squeezing a four-year curriculum into a shorter time frame, and that may mean requiring students to do one of these three things:
- Complete summer classes
- Take an abnormally hefty course load during the school year
- Enter college already armed with substantial credits.
In the third instance, you'll need to start planning while in high school, says Jeff Robinson, director of communications at the Ohio Board of Regents. Ohio is one of the few states that require its public colleges to offer accelerated degrees. Under the current legislation, all 13 of the state's public four-year schools are required to offer three-year degree options in at least 60 percent of their academic programs. Many of these three-year options hinge on students entering college with Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, dual enrollment or community college credit.
The high school junior and senior years "are when you should be looking and speaking with your adviser about what you want to get into, your field of interest and looking at some of these schools that offer the three-year programs to see what their prerequisites are," Robinson says, adding that once in college, students should continue working their advisers to stay on track.
Preparation is key
The prerequisites alone place three-year degrees out of reach for many incoming freshmen, especially those who need remedial courses just to complete college on a standard four-year timeline. Research published by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2013 shows that one out of every five undergraduate freshmen takes remedial courses, which typically aren't included in a three-year curriculum, to get ready for higher education.
"For the student who is very well-prepared, a three-year degree is an attractive and likely more affordable option, there's no question about it," says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. "… The key phrase is, 'Is the student well-prepared?'"
Research indicates that most aren't. A study published in 2012 by ACT, the nonprofit best known for creating the ACT college admissions exam, showed that only one out of every four high school graduates met college readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math and science. A separate study by the College Board is slightly more encouraging but still estimates that less than half of high school grads are actually college-ready. With so many starting at a deficit, it's no surprise that plenty struggle just to get through a standard four-year program. Only about 60 percent of first-time and full-time students graduate with a bachelor's degree within six years of enrolling, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.
Before signing on to a three-year degree program, Schneider recommends that students meet with their adviser to figure out what the requirements of the degree are and if they can academically handle the accelerated pace. Students should also evaluate what they're giving up, she says, as many accelerated curricula don't leave time for "high-impact educational experiences," such as internships, study abroad semesters or undergraduate research programs, which may be of higher value to employers than academic performance alone.
Pay now, earn sooner
Financial aid is another consideration, adds Thomas Harnisch, assistant director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. While three-year degrees generally save students at least one semester's worth of tuition and housing costs, awards like the federal Pell Grant have yearly caps, meaning that if you take a full course load in fall and spring, you won't get additional Pell aid to cover summer courses.
"I would advise students to really look at how the federal student aid programs and their state programs align with the credit loads that they're taking," Harnisch says.
For students who can make a three-year degree work, the payoff doesn't only mean sidestepping significant college debt — it also means gaining an extra year of earning money in the workforce, which is enticing for students pursuing the best-paying jobs at this degree level. Gerald Kauvar, a research professor of public administration and public policy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says that accelerated degrees make financial sense for colleges, too, especially models that boost enrollment during summer months when campuses are less populated.
"Certainly not every student is capable or interested in finishing a degree in three years, but if they wish to, we ought to make it possible for them to do so …," he says, later adding, "… It's something that every college president ought to be thinking about as they're worried about access and affordability."
"The Condition of College & Career Readiness l 2012," ACT, p. 1,
"2013 SAT Report on College and Career Readiness," The College Board, p. 3,
"Graduate in four years? Try three," Doane College, March 5, 2014,
Thomas Harnisch, Assistant Director of State Relations and Policy Analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Interviewed by the author on Aug. 15, 2014
Dr. Gerald Kauvar, Ph.D., Research Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University, Interviewed by the author on Aug. 13, 2014
"FAST FACTS," National Center for Education Statistics,
"First-Year Undergraduate Remedial Coursetaking: 1999-2000, 2003-04, 2007-08," National Center for Education Statistics, January 2013, p. 2,
"3-Year Degree Saves Students Money," Jim Petro, Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, University System of Ohio,
"Purdue president announces prize for three-year communication degree," Purdue University, Aug. 11, 2014,
Jeff Robinson, Director of Communications for the Ohio Board of Regents, Interviewed by the author on Aug. 6, 2014
Dr. Carol Geary Schneider, Ph.D., President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Interviewed by the author on Aug. 6, 2014