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Completing College in Three Years Takes Sacrifice, But Has Benefits

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Most American college students don't manage to graduate in four years—changing majors, transferring schools, and not being able to get into required classes at crowded public universities all lengthen the journey. But some motivated students are keen to earn a bachelor's degree even faster, in just three years if they can.

Typically the reason is money—students can save thousands of dollars, or even tens of thousands, on tuition by completing college in three years rather than four. But others are raring to move on to graduate school or, in the case of programs that allow students to earn a B.S. or B.A. and a dentistry or ophthalmology degree in seven years rather than eight, start working.

Recent articles about the three-year option in the Boston Globe and TakePart, an online magazine, have explored what it takes to speed through school.

"The three-year bachelor's degree is a very attractive option for students who have a clearly defined career aspiration and are unlikely to deviate from it," Don E. St. Clair, an administrator at Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif., who has studied accelerated bachelor's degrees, told TakePart.

TakePart interviewed Tracy Stotts, a student who graduated from Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., in three years.

"Every minute was dedicated, and I had to be very careful not to waste even one credit," she said. Now a marketing director at a Fortune 500 company, she believes her stress-filled schedule was worth it. "Finishing in December gave me a head start on the job hunt and seemed to impress potential employers," she said.

The Boston Globe looked at Wesleyan University, one of the few elite universities to promote a fast-track undergraduate degreeWesleyan students typically take four classes a semester for four years to earn the 32 credits they need for a bachelor's degree. A student can squeeze those credits into three years through a combination of taking five classes some semesters and enrolling in summer sessions. The university estimates students can shave about 20 percent off their total tuition bill—roughly $50,000 at Wesleyan—if they graduate in three years.

Wesleyan students on the three-year plan told the Boston Globe they sacrificed sleep, study-abroad opportunities, and some extracurricular activities. But they still managed to socialize and participate in the activities that were most important to them. Victoria Ramos, a sophomore majoring in neuroscience and behavior, said she's "gotten a good breadth of things I wanted to do, a taste of everything."

I asked David Phillips, the class of 2016 dean and an adviser for the three-year plan at Wesleyan, for his take on earning a B.A. in three years.

"It's really hard to do. It's four years of work in three years," he said. He told me Wesleyan increased its summer sessions last year to make the pace a little less grueling; now students can earn up to four credits in one summer. But some aspects of college are still lost if a student chooses the three-year option. 

"We build into the college experience at Wesleyan and other schools this idea of exploration," he said. "You don't have a lot of time to explore" in a three-year program.

However, he added, for students who know exactly where they want to go in their lives, saving time getting there could be beneficial.

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