Pros and cons of accelerated degree programs

Male holding college diploma
  • At-risk students with academic deficiencies may not graduate on time.
  • Some degrees, like nursing, don't lend themselves to shorter programs.
  • Certain schools increase the course load for students each semester.

Southern New Hampshire University is doing it. Rhode Island College is doing it and now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro is doing it, too. Offering students optional three-year bachelor's degree programs, these schools along with a handful of other institutions are reducing campus time to get grads into the working world faster.

Long adopted by European and Australian institutions, three-year programs are cheaper -- but at what cost, ask critics. Below, the pros and cons of accelerated degrees.

Greater risk to the at-risk

The economic reasons for shortening college tenure are strong. Not only knocking out a year of tuition, room and board -- a value of anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 -- they also reduce student loan interest and help students get a jump on paying their student loans back. The problem, says Karen Gross, president of Southern Vermont College in Bennington, Vt., is that the students most economically motivated to reduce their college costs are frequently the ones who need a four-year program the most.

"Many students come into college with certain academic deficiencies. There's a fair amount of work that has to be done just to catch them up," she says. "There are a subgroup of students from elite high schools for whom a three-year degree would be just fine. But that's a very small percentage."

Certain populations of students are more at-risk than others. Students from low-income, English as a second language and first-generation college backgrounds are less likely to complete a bachelor's degree than other students.

"If you fit into any of these vulnerable populations, it doesn't mean that you can't graduate," says Gross. "It just means that you are statistically at greater risk. You need to consider that."


Fewer options

Even those that are academically ready will have to contend with a smaller selection of majors.

"We only offer this in a select few majors because there are certain majors that do not lend themselves to a hastened path," says Steve Roberson, dean of undergraduate studies for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a school that will offer a three-year degree option in approximately half of its departments starting this fall. "In majors like the performing arts, those skills can't be rushed into a three-year format."

The same applies to such majors as nursing, biochemistry and engineering that require lengthy lab and clinical hours.

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