Three students tossing graduation caps in the air

Are three-year degree programs the answer?

With a few key improvements, three-year programs can be a terrific option

A three-year bachelor’s degree may help students dodge some of the increasingly burdensome debt associated with higher education–that is, if the programs can get off the ground.

At least 32 institutions offer programs that help students graduate in three years, and more colleges and universities are expected to follow suit. Many of these three-year degree programs have existed for more than 10 years, notes Paul Weinstein Jr., a senior fellow of the Progressive Policy Institute and director of the Graduate Program in Public Management at Johns Hopkins University, in a report detailing the trend toward three-year bachelor’s degrees.

“American college students are facing a triple whammy–out-of-control college costs, record levels of student debt, and declining real earnings for college graduates,” Weinstein contends in the report, yet lawmakers haven’t taken any real action to remedy the issue.

But while the motive behind three-year degree programs is encouraging, the programs themselves are not–” if one were to assign a grade to the current crop of three-year bachelor’s degree programs, it would be an ‘F,'” Weinstein writes.

The primary reason for this poor performance? Many three-year degree programs try to squeeze four years of learning into three years, meaning they appeal primarily to a few highly motivated students and have small adoption rates–between 2 percent to 19 percent, according to research cited in the report.

The four-year degree developed as a result of various learning trends, and it’s once again time for the U.S. to take a look at how higher education bachelor’s degree programs are structured.

New bachelor’s degree programs should reflect new realities, Weinstein urges. Those realities include:

1. A growing number of knowledge-intensive jobs of the 21st-century demand more than a college degree. A Georgetown University study shows that since the beginning of the economic recovery, those with graduate degrees have gained nearly as many jobs as bachelor’s degree holders, despite the fact that undergraduate students outnumber graduate students by 2-to-1. Moving forward, occupations that typically require a master’s degree for entry will grow the fastest over the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Given the growing demand for graduate education (and the resulting expense in money and time), reducing the time needed to earn a bachelor’s degree would enable students who want highly specialized skills to get to graduate school faster and with less debt.

2. According to one study, 93 percent of employers believe that critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills are more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate field of study. Most students would be better served with a curriculum that helps them become innovative, problem-solving thinkers who can communicate with fellow workers effectively. Rethinking the college curriculum to refocus it on qualitative and/or quantitative skills could allow students to finish their degrees sooner and move on to graduate school or the workforce.

3. Early evidence suggests that online learning is not a solution for rising college tuition and costs. A survey conducted by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies found that most colleges charge students the same or more to study online. And, when additional fees are included, more than half of online students pay more than do those in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Weinstein offers a number of strategies to help institutions design successful three-year degree programs.

1. Cut the course fat: The modern curriculum has become oversaturated with unnecessary electives and general education requirements. While a good liberal arts foundation has its place, it shouldn’t take up more than the first year of coursework.

2. Go abroad on your own time: At today’s prices, a year of study abroad is an expensive way to discover what it’s like to live overseas. There are lots of cheaper ways to go abroad than pay your college to send you.

3. Declare early: British students are generally required to declare an intended concentration before they are admitted to a university, which encourages an atmosphere of focus. U.S. students should be required to do the same, with the choice to change their major after the first year.

4. Make sure colleges give credit for advanced study in high school: In recent years, institutions have become more restrictive in granting course credit for AP and IB work done in high school.

5. Tie financial aid to three-year degrees: Congress should set a transitional period after which federal financial aid will be limited to students who are in a three-year degree program in order to ensure that the many benefits of a three-year bachelor’s degree become widely available.

6. Cut the cost of tuition and fees by 25 percent: Some existing three-year programs already do this, but other three-year programs only offer a portion of that amount.

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Laura Ascione

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