Universities Aim to Cut Costs and Time with 3-Year Degree Programs

As college costs continue to climb, and some students and families question the value of a traditional four-year degree, several forward-thinking state universities are exploring programs that would allow certain bachelor’s degrees to be completed in three years.

These programs, also being tested at private schools, aim to reduce the credit requirement for a bachelor’s degree from 120 to 90, without the need for summer classes or studying during breaks. Some degrees would also be tailored to meet specific industry demands.

Recently, Indiana passed legislation mandating that all state universities offer at least one three-year bachelor’s degree program by next year, with further exploration into additional three-year options. In Utah, state universities are working on three-year programs under a new Bachelor of Applied Studies degree, pending accreditation approval.

More than a dozen public and private universities are part of the College-in-3 Exchange initiative, exploring ways to implement three-year programs. Public universities involved include the College of New Jersey, Portland State University, and others.

Advocates of the three-year degree programs argue that they save students money and expedite their entry into the workforce. However, critics, including some faculty members, suggest that students may miss out on a comprehensive education if they later change career paths.

The Utah Board of Higher Education approved a new three-year degree category in March, aligning specific areas of study with industry needs and reducing elective requirements. These degrees aim to bridge the gap between two-year associate degrees and traditional four-year bachelor’s degrees.

Geoff Landward, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, emphasized the importance of institutions developing curricula for these programs while seeking industry partnerships to enhance employability.

Landward acknowledged concerns that three-year programs might devalue the bachelor’s degree, but highlighted the potential cost savings, workforce readiness, and industry relevance these programs could offer.

Robert Zemsky, a University of Pennsylvania professor, has long championed the idea of three-year college programs, suggesting that they address the growing dissatisfaction with the cost and value of traditional four-year degrees.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed skepticism about the necessity of a four-year college degree for securing a good-paying job, prompting higher education institutions to consider alternative models like shorter time frames for degree completion.

Zemsky predicted a surge in colleges offering three-year programs, citing the need to improve college completion rates and cater to evolving student preferences.

Opposition to three-year programs often stems from faculty concerns about compromising the quality of education, potentially creating disparities among students based on socioeconomic status.

While recognizing the desire to enhance job prospects, critics like Kenneth Mash caution against undermining the broader educational benefits of a traditional four-year degree.

A comprehensive education, including liberal arts, equips individuals to adapt to various career paths over their lifetime, Mash emphasized.

Indiana’s Legislation for Three-Year Degrees

Indiana’s new law mandates public institutions offering bachelor’s degrees to evaluate existing four-year programs for potential conversion to three-year degrees. By 2025, each state university must offer at least one three-year bachelor’s degree.

State Sen. Jean Leising highlighted the financial burden of extended college stays and noted that certain degrees are more amenable to accelerated curricula than others.

Chris Lowery, Indiana’s commissioner for higher education, emphasized the need for schools to maintain quality while designing 90-credit-hour bachelor’s programs.

Three-year degrees provide flexibility for students, recognizing varying circumstances such as financial constraints, as in the case of Lowery’s daughter.

Credentialing Requirements for Three-Year Degrees

Both public and private universities offering three-year programs with reduced credit requirements must secure national accreditation to ensure educational standards.

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities recently accredited several three-year bachelor’s degrees at private schools, validating the viability of accelerated programs.

The accreditation process confirms that competency for many professions can be attained in three years, underscoring the need for innovation in higher education.

Advocates like Michael Poliakoff stress the importance of streamlining degree requirements to focus on essential skills and knowledge, addressing concerns about student debt and academic rigor.

Efforts to enhance the quality and relevance of higher education must align with student expectations and societal demands, Poliakoff emphasized.

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