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Examining the Push for Three-Year Bachelor's Degrees

With the cost of college soaring, paying three years' of tuition instead of four (or more) has its appeal. Who wouldn't want to save time and money to enter the workforce sooner?

Not so fast, say the authors of a policy brief by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. While a three-year bachelor's degree sounds good, it's not for everyone and shouldn't be seen as the silver bullet that will solve the issue of college affordability.

Many states, including Indiana, Minnesota, and California, are exploring three-year bachelor's degrees at public universities. In Ohio, the governor called for the state's universities to offer three-year degrees in 10 percent of their degree programs by 2012 and 60 percent by 2014.

The AASCU paper, The Three-Year Bachelor's Degree: Reform Measure or Red Herring? by Daniel Hurley and Thomas Harnisch, examines the various goals and models of three-year degrees, along with their potential benefits and pitfalls.

Just how do you finish in three years?

Students can rack up credits before they arrive on campus with Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment credits. And one advantage of a three-year program is that it can motivate students to make better use of high school, the authors note. Colleges can also reduce the number of courses required for a degree or use a competency-based model, which rewards student knowledge over seat time. However, the most common method is to compress time to degree with summer courses or heavier loads.

Aside from saving money, getting a degree in three years means students have better access to courses, a clear path to completion, and can start earning an income sooner, the paper explains. For institutions, it can be a recruitment tool, prompt innovations in curriculum, and result in higher productivity.

But on a large scale, Harley and Harnisch suggest the three-year approach is an ineffective and inequitable model.

First, it has limited student appeal. Not many participate in these fast-track programs. It's not suited for many students who work, rely on Pell Grants (which are no longer available year-round), or lack the academic preparation for college, the report suggests.

Getting a program going has costs and requires key changes in campus operations. This investment may not pay off without widespread student participation.

Then there is the concern over rushing the college experience. Some may need four years or more to really develop critical-thinking skills, become engaged in campus life, and make full meaning of their new knowledge.

The paper quotes Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, who argues that the compressed three-year degree model will serve a small, motivated subset of the student population:

"Americans are often prone — especially in challenging economic times — to seek silver bullets that will reliably solve an important and complex societal problem," according to Schneider. "We can and should use the available resources more purposefully and efficiently...But we should not squander the most important resource of all: students' own high-effort time on task."


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