Are 3-Year Degrees The Answer To The College Cost Crisis?

by Robyn Gearey
Originally Published: 

I’ve been saving diligently since my first child was born, and the grandparents have even kicked in a few larger contributions from time to time, but right now, I only have enough money in each child’s account for one year of tuition and room and board at a state school. There’s still time—my kids are 11 and 8—but at the rate tuition is increasing, I’m not optimistic.

Many families in the same boat are forced to get creative to stretch their dollars. Some kids opt to enroll in community college for two years, then transfer to a four-year university. Others live at home while attending college to save on room and board. Some take cheaper online courses, and still others delay school and work for a few years to save up. While none of those options are terrible by any means, they all carry downsides for students and parents.

Over the past few years, another idea has been emerging: the three-year degree. I graduated from Swarthmore College in three years in the mid-1990s and I’ve always been surprised that more kids don’t opt to go this route. It really wasn’t a big deal; I don’t remember having to get special permission to do it and it wasn’t unusually taxing. I even worked about 30 hours per week all three years.

The concept started to get a little traction during the recession, with a few states even mandating their public schools offer an accelerated degree option, but the programs suffered from low enrollment. With soaring costs back in the news and top of mind for parents, the three-year degree is again getting some love. Let’s take a look at a few common misperceptions.

A three-year education isn’t as good.

I think alums of Britain’s prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Universities—both of which graduate students in three years—might beg to differ. Throughout Europe, three years for college is far more common than four.

According to Johns Hopkins professor Paul Weinstein, an advocate of the three-year degree, the four-year college program is more tradition than requirement: “We designed four-year degrees because high schools are four-year degrees.” The Washington Post attributes the tradition to Harvard University, which adopted the four-year system in 1652 because, well, that’s what the Brits did at the time.

While some accelerated programs don’t require as many credits as their four-year counterparts, many simply help students use advanced-placement credits and summer classes to speed up graduation. I took the same number of courses as my fellow students, and even had a double major. It just required a little more organization and planning.

Students miss out on the social benefits of living away from home.

Well, yes, but just for one year. And it beats having to live with your parents because you can’t afford room and board at all. Weinstein argues that offering a three-year option helps preserve the traditional college experience more than any other solution out there right now.

One unexpected benefit of a three-year degree is that it might encourage more students to take a gap year before college, a practice that many educators say makes for more mature, prepared freshmen. Harvard even advocates for it. An article on its website argues that “many [students] would benefit from a pause in their demanding lives” and report that the results of delaying college for a year are “uniformly positive.”

Colleges can barely graduate students in four years, let alone three.

Fair enough. According to the Wall Street Journal, fewer than 40 percent of students who began college in 2006 graduated four years later, and only 59 percent finished within six years.

There are lots of reasons why this is the case: unprepared freshman who have to take remedial classes; kids registering for less than full course loads; and students who lose credits when they transfer to another school. And there will always be those seniors who just never seem to graduate and whose parents keep paying the bill. But none of these are reasons not to offer motivated, cost-conscious students a path to early graduation.

The transfer issue is actually what prompted my decision to graduate in three years. While Swarthmore offered an exceptional education, it wasn’t the right fit for me socially. Rather than transfer and take five years to finish, I opted to double down and graduate a little sooner than planned. Saving 25 percent in fees was a big factor too. I already had loans and wasn’t eager to rack up more.

There were some compromises. Study abroad wasn’t an option, and I had to be strategic about the courses I chose to make sure I got all the requirements in for my majors. Those small sacrifices were easily worth the full year of tuition and room and board I saved. On the plus side, I ended up with friends in both my entering and graduating classes, and I started earning a full-time salary a year earlier than my peers.

Twenty years later, I can safely say it was a good choice for me. Of course, that doesn’t mean a three-year degree is ideal for all students, but for those crunching the numbers trying to figure out how to make college work financially, it’s at least a viable option to consider.

I’ll certainly mull it over with my own kids as they get closer to high school graduation. In the meantime, I’ve been talking up the excellent public universities in our state. Go Hoos!

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