A college degree is one of the most expensive investments a student will make over his or her lifetime. The cost of tuition has soared in recent years, prompting more students to take on debt to earn a degree. But what if a student could reduce his or her time in college and the associated costs? Certain programs aim to do that by helping college students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four.
“If you can knock a year off your degree while you’re in high school and translate that into a shorter degree, you’re saving the cost of an entire year of college as well as the opportunity cost of being out of the workforce” for that fourth year of college, says Elizabeth Sayrs, executive vice president and provost at Ohio University.
Even shaving a single semester off will lead to savings, she notes.
Students should know that a three-year college degree is possible but may require some extra work.
How to Earn a College Degree in Three Years
Typically, for most majors a bachelor’s degree requires 120 credit hours and is spread across four years. But Paul Quinn College, a historically Black college in Texas that aims to be anything but typical, has launched a three-year Urban Scholars online degree program that includes summer studies, internships and work experience.
The Urban Scholars program is focused on issues around wealth disparity, criminal justice reform and access to health care. Given these pressing topics, Paul Quinn President Michael Sorrell describes the program as having a sense of urgency.
While the Urban Scholars program is compressed into three years, that isn’t the only way to earn a bachelor’s degree in that time. Students can also work ahead in high school to set themselves up to graduate from college early. The state of Ohio, for example, has tasked colleges with providing an avenue for students to graduate within three years.
One way that some students get a head start on college is by earning credits in high school.
“We’re seeing a dramatic increase in students who are bringing credit into the university,” Sayrs says.
And those college credits can come in various ways. High school students can rack them up through dual-enrollment programs — often offered through community colleges — Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate curriculum or via the College-Level Examination Program, known as CLEP. Adult learners can also transfer in credits from military service in some cases.
Regardless of how credits are earned, students must make sure they are applicable, experts say.
“That typically means focusing on general education credits,” Sayrs says. She encourages prospective students who are earning credit early to look to a prospective college’s general education requirements to get a sense of what is needed and to understand that specialized courses may not transfer.
Likewise, some colleges don’t accept AP credits, which means students should look into individual policies. One place to do so is the College Board website, which allows users to see which colleges will accept AP credits.
Skipping Important Opportunities to Graduate Early
College isn’t just about the coursework. Much of the learning experience happens outside of the classroom. Students can gain valuable insights and networking opportunities through internships and co-ops.
“Where students really excel in college is the experiences that they have that go with the coursework,” Sayrs says. “Don’t short yourself on internships, on experiential learning opportunities, on community engagement, on undergraduate research, or whatever goes with your coursework.”
If a student crams 120 credit hours into three years, some of the above options may be limited based on time. A race to the finish may mean summers spent in class instead of engaging in other experiences.
At Paul Quinn, internships and work experiences are built into the three-year Urban Scholars program.
“That’s going to help keep down your costs and it’s going to give you real-world experience,” Sorrell says.
But he cautions that the program is not for everyone. “I think it’s for students who see themselves as agents of change, students who want to engage in the great problems of the day, students who are maybe a little impatient at the idea that they have to sit in the classroom for four years before they get to go do things.”
Sayrs says students should have a goal in mind if they plan to complete a degree in three years. Is the goal to save money? Start a graduate program early? Get into the workforce sooner? Whatever the goal is, Sayrs encourages students to identify it and recognize that they still need to complete 120 credit hours.
Rethinking the Four-Year Degree: What to Know
For Sorrell, restructuring the academic calendar to ensure students can graduate early makes perfect sense. After all, he notes, the semester-based model with summers off is largely based on agrarian needs of the past. Generations ago, many students typically needed summers off to help families farm, a tradition that has since diminished.
“Who says that summers need to be off?” asks Sorrell, noting that times and ways of life have changed.
Bob Zemsky, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent years thinking about three-year degrees.
About a decade ago, Zemsky says, there was considerable attention paid to the concept, but it largely fizzled out. But during this moment of educational upheaval as colleges struggle with the impact of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, he thinks there is an urgency to revisit the idea of three-year degrees.
“Higher ed, fundamentally, has a product problem,” Zemsky says, noting the many students that colleges lose in their first year.
Zemsky hopes to see colleges introduce three-year, 90-credit bachelor’s degree programs with reduced general education credits, a model that he notes is common overseas in places such as the United Kingdom.
One issue, he acknowledges, is accrediting bodies, which determine the number of credits required for a degree. But in this time of turmoil, Zemsky hopes that accreditation agencies will stand back if colleges decide to pare bachelor’s degree programs down to 90 credits. Ultimately, it’s up to colleges to push the concept, he says.
“You could argue that today is the time when all fundamental questions get to be asked again, so why not go ahead and ask this question?” Zemsky says.
Meanwhile, the three-year options generally available to students are accelerated programs, such as the one at Paul Quinn College, or pathways to graduate early by bringing in college credit, such as at Ohio University.
While hoping for change, Zemsky knows that he’s playing the long game in reforming bachelor’s degrees.
“I’m throwing pebbles into the pond,” Zemsky says. “And there are some ripples.”
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