Authored: Emma Whitford
Published: November 9, 2021
Inside Higher Education
Higher education thought leaders and colleges are working together to create a three-year bachelor’s degree program that will offer all the value of a four-year degree—for less cost.
When her family decided to move Stateside after living in Dubai for nine years, Oma Seddiq was eager to go with them. A junior at Northwestern University in Qatar, Seddiq still had two years left in her journalism program.
“I wanted to be back home at the same time as them, so I decided to finish school early,” Seddiq said. She had entered college with roughly a semester’s worth of credits. By taking summer courses, earning internship credit and adding extra classes during her last year, she was able to graduate in three years instead of the typical four.
Seddiq is glad she graduated early, but she said that taking extra classes was especially hard.
“I managed,” she said, “but I remember many nights with little sleep and lots of stress.”
Very few undergraduates complete a bachelor’s degree in three years, said Mikyung Ryu, the director of research publications at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Some, like Seddiq, have succeeded in doing so by overloading on credit hours during the fall and spring semesters, amassing AP credits or forgoing a part-time job to complete general education requirements over the summer.
But what if students, via an overhauled undergraduate curriculum, could complete a bachelor’s degree in three years, with summer breaks, holidays and an on-campus experience to boot?
That is the question that Robert Zemsky and Lori Carrell have set out to explore. Over the summer and into the fall, Zemsky, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Carrell, chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Rochester, recruited more than a dozen institutions to explore the option of creating a brand-new three-year bachelor’s degree program on their campuses.
“We did not ask people to commit to doing a three-year degree. That’s just not the way higher ed works,” Zemsky said. “We said, ‘All we want is a commitment to take the idea seriously, and we’ll help you take the idea seriously.’”
Some institutions have tried three-year undergraduate degree programs before, but they haven’t generated enough student interest to catch on. Breaking away from the four-year tradition will be difficult—accrediting agencies, college athletic associations and graduate program admission requirements could present logistical hurdles for designers of three-year programs. The social and psychological benefits students reap during four years on a college campus may not easily translate to a three-year option.
But as the cost of college continues to climb and more adult, nontraditional and career-focused students look to higher education to get ahead, a three-year degree option could be just what the industry needs right now.
“If the degree itself could be a blank canvas, and you’re thinking about driving down student cost and driving up quality and equity, how would you design the coursework?” Carrell said. “What sorts of experiential learning and student development pieces would you build in it, and toward what competencies would you be driving? All of that comes into the conversation.”
As of this month, Zemsky and Carrell have enlisted 13 pilot institutions that have promised to at least consider the idea of a three-year degree program. The goal of the College in 3 project is not to design a program that packs 120 credit hours into three years, but to overhaul the curriculum in a way that allows students to learn the skills and material they need for a bachelor’s degree in three-quarters of the time.
The pilot institutions are public and private, big and small, and scattered throughout the country. So far, they include American Public University System, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Merrimack College, New England College, Northwood University, Portland State University, Slippery Rock University, the University of Minnesota at Rochester, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh and Utica College. The group includes one additional institution that does not want to be named at this time.
Over the next several months, the institutions will conduct exploratory conversations about a new bachelor’s degree program—likely one that could be completed within three years—with input from institutional leaders, faculty members, students and each other. Zemsky and Carrell will serve as guides along the way.
A New Look at an Old Idea
A three-year degree would go a long way toward addressing what many families see as the biggest deterrent to higher education: the escalating cost. Between 1980 and 2020, student share—the proportion of public education revenues paid for by students and families—increased from about 21 percent to 44 percent, data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association show.
Over the last 30 years, average tuition and fees have increased by $6,580 at public, four-year colleges, and by $18,710 at private, nonprofit four-year institutions after adjusting for inflation, according to College Board data. Average net price—the price students pay out of pocket after accounting for institutional and federal aid—has also increased in that time, albeit much more slowly.
Politicians and higher education leaders have for decades toyed with the three-year bachelor’s degree idea as a potential solution to the climbing cost of higher education. Theoretically, if students spent only three years on a four-year degree, they would save 25 percent in tuition. Lamar Alexander, then a U.S. senator from Tennessee, pushed the idea in 2009 and called three-year bachelor’s degrees the “higher ed equivalent of a fuel-efficient car,” compared with a “gas-guzzling four-year course.” Richard Celeste, a former governor of Ohio and former president of Colorado College, also embraced the three-year degree. So did economist Richard Vedder, a professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University, and the late George Keller, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Several institutions have tried to implement accelerated degree programs, but they were often met with little student interest. Albertus Magnus College, for example, had students take courses year-round on a trimester schedule. The Connecticut private college discontinued the program in the 1990s because students and faculty members determined that the three-year time frame “did not allow for the psychosocial and academic development of 18- to 22-year-olds” that otherwise occurs in four years, according to a college spokesperson.
The University of Iowa offers a Degree in Three program that allows a select group of students to pack four years of work into three. The graduation requirements for the three-year program are the same as a typical four-year program.
“Three-year programs require students to take a heavier course load and to proceed at a much faster pace,” the university website says. “Iowa Degree in Three isn’t right for everyone. The program is designed for students who come to Iowa with specific goals, have already earned some college credit, or are ready to complete more courses per term than average.”
Manchester University in Indiana also offers a Fast Forward program, during which students take 16 credits per semester—as opposed to the typical 12 to 16 credits—and complete their general education requirements over the summer in order to graduate in three years.
Institutions that offer accelerated degree programs experience, at best, mixed results, according to a 2017 report from Hanover Research. Even if such programs attract students, few students actually complete their degree in three years. When Manchester, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Ball State University launched their three-year degree programs more than a decade ago, a few dozen students enrolled. The Washington Post reported in 2011 that some students who opted out of the three-year program did so because they were seeking a richer social life and didn’t have time to take advantage of study abroad and student activities.
The College in 3 project will try to sidestep some of these pitfalls. By designing a three-year curriculum that matches the slower pace of a four-year program, students will hopefully avoid burnout and be able to take advantage of other opportunities on campus, like athletics and student activities.
Zemsky said he’s discussed the three-year degree before and found himself continuously coming back to it. Last year, he slipped the topic into several public speeches, and audiences were hooked. Higher education professionals began to reach out to talk about the idea with renewed interest.
“The amazing thing about this is it took off almost immediately. Nobody said, ‘Oh, Bob, that’s an old idea, let it go.’ Nobody said that to me at all,” Zemsky said.
As Zemsky and Carrell wrapped up their most recent book, Communicate for a Change, they were already discussing another. This one would be called, tentatively, College in 3, and it would lay out a process for conceptualizing and implementing a new bachelor’s degree program that could be completed in three years.
Most of the pilot colleges are still in early stages of their planning, and it’s too soon to say what any program will look like, if it will be implemented or how successful it will be. Some colleges are still signing on to the project now.
“The pilots are having exploratory conversations. It may lead them somewhere beyond or somewhere different from College in 3 itself, but that they had the conversations creates the opportunity for transformation and revitalization by considering how we could do better for students and have better outcomes while driving down the costs,” Carrell said.
Utica College in New York was one of the first institutions to jump onboard. The private college formed a starter team—in line with the recommendation Zemsky and Carrell lay out in their forthcoming book—that includes the dean and associate dean of arts and sciences, student enrollment and admissions personnel, and other institutional leaders who will first tackle big questions. Later, a group of faculty members will convene to work out a more detailed implementation process, said Todd Pfannestiel, provost at the college and a member of the starter team.
The team identified five programs—history, English, communications, philosophy and sociology and anthropology—that could benefit from an accelerated degree option.
“We think that these are programs that are a little bit more flexible with regard to accreditation. They don’t have individual accreditation, and so that’s one less hurdle that we have to work through,” Pfannestiel said. “We think these programs, as strong as they are, could use some additional boost with regard to potential enrollment, and we see this as an opportunity to attract new students into these programs that might not otherwise think of them.”
Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., is taking a different approach. Its starter team is focused on developing a three-year program for what President Christopher Hopey called “new economy jobs,” like business, finance, engineering and nursing. The new program could include more professional and internship experience than a typical undergraduate program.
“It’s not simply just less courses. ‘Get rid of the core curriculum’—that’s just a simple way of thinking about it,” Hopey said. “It’s actually looking at it upside down: What exactly should the undergraduate experience look like? How do we create a model that generates social capital and professional experiences within the degree itself?”
The University of Minnesota at Rochester, where Carrell is chancellor, had a head start on the planning process. Before Zemsky and Carrell began recruiting pilots, UM Rochester was already developing an accelerated program and a brand-new curriculum for its bachelor of science in health sciences degree. University officials hope to welcome the first cohort of students to the program in fall 2022.
Program designers are still finalizing details, but in August, the group planned to bundle courses into seven-week blocks—rather than semesters—so that students could study a few topics at a time more deeply. The program would also build long-term projects into the curriculum.
“So much of our charge during the design sprint was to think about how—within a limited set of parameters that were really important, acceleration being one of the core tenets—to design the ideal student experience,” said Robert Erdmann, director of campus learning, data and technology at UM Rochester.
A Long Road to Implementation
All the pilot campuses, if they make it past the initial design stages, will inevitably face a number of hurdles to implementation.
Accrediting agencies, for the most part, dictate what types of degree options an institution can offer. Each accreditor is different, and so are the standards they hold for the institutions they work with, said Larry Schall, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education. Schall also serves on an informal advisory committee for the College in 3 project.
Some agencies, including NECHE, include clear credit-hour standards in their policies. NECHE requires bachelor’s degrees to include a minimum of 120 semester credits. A three-year bachelor’s degree of 90 credits, for example, would run up against that minimum.
The 120-credit hour standard is an old one, and it came to be through a web of rules and regulations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. When the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching sought to create a pension program for faculty members at higher education institutions in the late 1800s, it stipulated the eligible institutions must meet the 120-credit hour standard, known as the Carnegie Unit system.
NECHE-accredited institutions have an option to experiment outside of the agency’s standards. The agency has a policy on pilot projects that permits institutions to try out a new program that otherwise violates some of the agency’s existing standards for up to four years. The program was put in place to encourage innovation, Schall said. Institutions that pursue a potential three-year degree program are welcome to apply.
“Cost and access are major issues across the industry, and so ideas that are designed to improve access and reduce costs are things that I’d be interested in exploring,” Schall said.
It’s unclear exactly how the three-year degree plans will be received by the U.S. Department of Education. Unlike some accrediting agencies, the department does not specify how many credits constitute a bachelor’s degree. A spokesperson said the department is aware that some institutions are interested in pursuing a three-year bachelor’s degree option, and noted that a 90-credit bachelor’s degree would likely not be contested by the department.
Some experts also wonder whether a three-year program would diminish the psychosocial benefits of the traditional higher education experience. This is ultimately what sank the program at Albertus Magnus. A three-year program could eat into the number of general education courses a college requires, as well as limit opportunities for participation in athletics and other student activities. It would also mean one fewer year on campus, which Richard Ekman, the former president of the Council of Independent Colleges, believes to be very valuable.
“I am a firm believer in the value of a four-year degree for traditional-age students for whom the maturation process is very much part of the transformation process of undergraduate education,” Ekman said. “If there is a group of colleges that want to try it as an experiment, I think we will learn something from it. But my commitment to the value of the four years is pretty strong.”
The success of some of these programs will also depend on what types of students enroll and benefit. Will traditional-aged students opt for a shorter college experience to save money and get into the workforce, or will the cheaper and faster program attract students who otherwise would not have considered a bachelor’s degree?
“Students who are most concerned about cost are the students who are often very vocation oriented. That is, they wanted to learn a skill and get out and get a job,” Ekman said. “So if you can take, say, the accounting sequence, or the computer science sequence, or the nursing sequence, and reduce it to less than four years, that’s going to be appealing to them.”
For Seddiq, obtaining a degree in three years was an exercise in planning and perseverance.
“There’s not really a system in place when you say you want to graduate early. You just have to make it happen for yourself,” Seddiq said. “Meetings with academic advisers, counting up your credits, taking on extra workloads—it’s all up to you to figure out.”
If Zemsky, Carrell and the pilot institutions get their way, tomorrow’s students will have a lot more options and guidance in plotting their degrees over the course of three years.
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