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Momentum builds behind a way to lower the cost of college: A degree in 3 years

Skepticism about the cost and duration of a higher education drives a need for speed

Like many high school seniors, Grant Austin Robert Simms was bombarded with marketing materials from colleges that showed euphoric students enjoying athletics, extracurricular clubs and the excitement of living on campus.

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, where he ultimately decided to enroll.

A rare brand-new nonprofit university, NewU has a comparatively low $16,500-a-year price that’s locked in for a student’s entire education and majors with interchangeable requirements so students don’t fall behind if they switch.

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

“We didn’t think the three-year bachelor’s degree was going to be the biggest draw,” said Stratsi Kulinski, president of the startup college. “But it has been, hands-down. Consumers are definitely ready for something different.”

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.

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“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 attracted attention. Utica College Provost Todd Pfannestiel recounted seeing a 1970s clipping from the student newspaper musing over whether three-year degrees might be offered. The topic returned 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 didn’t take. Faculty didn’t like the idea of speeding things up, and students resisted cramming their schedules so full that they’d miss out on the other experiences depicted in those marketing brochures.

Today, admissions officers at the University of Washington know of no three-year degrees there, a spokesman said. Other schools tried and dropped them, such as the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where a spokesman said there wasn’t enough student interest.

Back then, the three-year degree “just died on the vine,” said 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. 

Momentum now appears to be returning.

“I think it is very real this time,” said Pfannestiel.

Utica is among 13 institutions, prodded by Zemsky and University of Minnesota Rochester Chancellor Lori Carrell, that have agreed to consider three-year degrees in at least some majors as part of a program called College in 3. These include Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Merrimack College, New England College, Portland State University, Slippery Rock University, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

Other colleges and universities are launching three-year degrees this fall, often combined with graduate education so students can graduate with 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, accounting, finance and management and entrepreneurship.

How long earning a degree will take “is part of the return-on-investment calculus they’re making,” Reed said. “I have family members who are talking about, ‘Why would I want to spend six years at an institution and go into debt?’ It weighs heavily right now.”

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 now 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.

“The notion that you don’t have to go to college, that you might be able to get the skills you need from a corporate entity, 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. “I suspect that, at the macro level, it’s a question of relevance and financial solvency for many institutions.”

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. Wentworth, for example, will add combined four-year bachelor’s and master’s degrees in data science and cybersecurity analytics starting in the fall of 2023, the university says. Adelphi University, starting this fall, is offering a three-year bachelor’s degree in business with the option to add on accelerated master’s degrees in business administration, business analytics, supply chain management and accounting.

Three-year degrees can appeal to another important market for U.S. universities: international students currently being lost to competitor nations where bachelor’s degrees already take three years instead of four. The once-steady flow of international students to the United States increased every year from 2005 until 2019, when anti-immigration sentiment, tension with China and other problems began to chip away at the numbers. Then COVID decimated them.

Now, said Goldstein, U.S. institutions “are competing head on against U.K. and E.U. programs, and that’s a three-year model that’s automatically a quarter less expensive.”  

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, a surprising 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 get to go out and experience the world a year earlier than I would have,” said Victoria DeLuca, 18, a Utica student who started in the fall and plans to earn her degree in three years.

“I’m paying for my own college. All the loans are in my name. All the money I’ve already paid, I’ve worked for. 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 will finish her degree at Utica in December after 3 1/2 years.

“Any time you can save, why not go for that option?” added Louie Zanca, 19, who has signed on to get his bachelor’s degree at Wentworth in three years.

There remain obstacles to expanding three-year degree programs. Students worry they’ll miss out on the fun parts of college, Reed said. Carrell agreed. Despite their criticisms of the price and seemingly endless time it takes to finish, she said, “there’s nostalgia about what college is.”

Some faculty argue “that students really need that extended period of time — that we’re shortchanging the students,” Goldstein said. “This is a not-uncommon faculty refrain.”

Faculty also worry that such a reform would “cheapen the degree,” said Zemsky. “You’re talking about an industry that believes in marginal change. Anything that smacks of changing anything all at once has got to be crazy.”

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.

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But advocates are finding work-arounds — that college sidestepped its humanities faculty’s objections by instead proposing a three-year degree in “liberal studies” from scratch, for instance — and allies.

“There is a movement growing among younger faculty that we’re not going to be beholden to the past. That unbinds them in lots of ways,” said Zemsky. 

Less hidebound institutions, such as Wentworth, which started as a trade school and didn’t grant bachelor’s degrees until 1970 and master’s degrees until 2009, are better equipped to try these kinds of changes than longer-established rivals, Tichenor said.

“This is a place that doesn’t have to worry about a lot of precedent and baggage,” she 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. At Wentworth, we don’t have the same drag.”

The biggest challenge is how to fit the requirements of a bachelor’s degree designed to take four years into three. That’s because colleges and universities have long been measured by how many “credit hours” students spend in class — 120 to graduate, typically divided into three credit hours per course — rather than what, if anything, they learn during that time.

The intention of the 120-credit hour rule was to standardize higher education nationwide, but by 1993, even the organization that created it, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said it had become obsolete. Similar calls have followed, but universities continue to require 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree.

Most three-year degree programs simply try to squeeze 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 in administration management with a concentration in social media management and business media design, while also working and raising a four-year-old son. “Caffeine is a big motivator.”

It’s “definitely a lot more challenging,” said Zanca, at Wentworth. “Not quite overwhelming, but more challenging than if I had the regular number of classes.”

The University of Iowa recommends that only “highly motivated students” take the three-year bachelor’s degrees it offers in majors including English, history, marketing and theatre arts. Wentworth invites the top 10 percent of the incoming class, based on their academic record, to attempt bachelor’s degrees in three years, Tichenor said.

NewU is trying a different approach: lengthening semesters to 18 weeks so that students earn four instead of three credits per course. Yes, Kulinski said, that means they’ll take fewer courses, but they’ll cover more content per course. The project is being underwritten by mostly in-kind contributions from technology companies and law firms and financial support from its organizers and supporters, according to 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.

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“There is no magic dust in 120 [credits]. It’s not a law or a commandment on the tablets. It served its purpose, but that was a long time ago,” said Pfannestiel, at Utica. “This won’t be an accelerated program. This will be a 90-credit program that still includes all the general education requirements but also the requirements for the degree,” with testing to prove that students have met learning goals.

Policymakers say they sense a mood for reform.

“The accreditors are probably a lot more open to this solution than a lot of institutions are,” said Goldstein. “At least some of them are saying, ‘If you can show us that you can provide what would be expected from a bachelor’s degree in terms of the learning, then the magic 120 credits is really not a benchmark we have to stick to.’ ”

Higher education’s many challenges make this “a moment to talk about things,” said Zemsky. “There is this sense that standing pat is no longer the answer. Something has to give. So it’s making optimists out of people who weren’t before.”

There might not be much choice, said Tichenor.

“Students and parents are now calling into question a lot of the basics that we traditionally took for granted,” she said.

“We have a very wise consumer out there,” Pfannestiel said. “Time is money. The public is waking up and putting that pressure on institutions to mind this.”

Viktoriya Zotova, who will teach a class in analytics at NewU when it opens, said that, as an economist, “what really bugs me is the inefficient use of resources and wasted opportunities” in the time it takes so many students to graduate from college.

There are questions, however, about who will benefit from three-year degrees — first-generation and low-income students now often stymied by the cost and duration of college, or the “highly motivated” from well-resourced private or suburban public high schools that equip them with 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. “First-generation students need a lot more time. Just thinking in terms of speed or pace is not serving that population.”

At Georgetown’s research-and-development lab, just across town fro NewU, 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. “There’s just a sense that we need to do something because we’re losing so many people out of the system. But it would be a loss if we tried to just jam [120 credits] into three years.”

For Bass, 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.

Already, Kulinski said, other colleges are watching to see if NewU catches on. “Some are curious,” he said. “They’re kicking the tires.”

The fact that 13 institutions are collaborating on the College in 3 project will help, said Zemsky and others. “What has to happen is, we’ve got to get some successes on the table, and then we have to get people to talk about it.”

Grant Austin Robert 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.

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Twelve percent of full-time private and 10 percent of full-time public university and college students are finishing four-year degrees within three years.