This article appears in College Prep 2018.
More schools are offering three-year degrees to counter the rising cost of college, but a new analysis shows that improvements need to be made to assure the success of this trend.
Reducing the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree can save students money, but it’s not as simple “as trying to squeeze four years into three,” said Paul Weinstein, director of Johns Hopkins University’s graduate program in public management and author of the May report “Which colleges offer three-year bachelor’s and why aren’t they working?” published by the Progressive Policy Institute.
“The trend toward three-year bachelors is heartening — particularly since the vast majority of these programs have been established since 2005,” said Weinstein, an advocate for fast-tracking college education. “However, if one were to assign a grade to the current crop of three-year bachelors’ degree programs, it would be an ‘F.’”
At least 32 schools including Ball State, American University, New York University, University of Iowa, Kent State and Purdue University offer three-year degrees, up from just a handful in 2014, Weinstein said.
A four-year degree may be the norm in America, but why?
“The only reason we do four years is because it’s tradition — four years of high school and four years of college. No one said four years is the optimal amount of time. We should rethink it,” Weinstein said.
For much of Europe, three-year degrees are common. Take the German apprenticeship model, where students earn a three-year degree before moving on to specialize with a master’s degree that allows them to put their education to work in practice rather than theory.
“If (a three-year degree) is a good idea at Cambridge and Oxford” it can work here as well, Weinstein said.
A three-year degree appeals to motivated students who want to jump-start their careers as well as those who want a bachelor’s under their belt before moving on to a more specialized advanced degree, Weinstein said.
Then, there’s the money. Three-year degrees can offer students thousands in savings and reduce student loan costs, Weinstein said.
Making it work
The way American colleges are running three-year programs allows only the most motivated students to succeed, Weinstein said.
The college curriculum needs to be reinvented “to impart in three years the core skills our students need to get good, middle-class jobs or go on to graduate school to acquire highly specialized skills,” he said.
To be successful these programs need to:
— Cut course fat: Remove electives and general education requirements that attempt to teach students a little about everything at the cost of educating extensively in one or two subjects.
— Eliminate study abroad: It’s cheaper to graduate in three years then take a year to live or volunteer abroad, he said.
— Declare majors early: Students should be required to declare a major early or before gaining admission to a school as their British counterparts do, he said.
— Give credit for advanced high school work: While many universities have become restrictive about accepting Advanced Placement credit, some states like Illinois and Texas require that colleges and universities provide course credit to students who score at least a 3 on an AP exam. Weinstein feels Congress should require that schools give course credit to students who receive federal aid or subsidized loans and score a 3 on any AP exam and that all 36 AP subjects should be eligible for credit.