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.”
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.
Statistically, a majority of students won’t be eligible for three-year degree programs, anyway. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that nearly 60 percent of all students transfer before graduating, and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions reports that more than half change majors at least once — two options that are completely off the table for students with three-year graduation plans.
“This program doesn’t allow any room for error,” says Roberson. “(Students) cannot fail a course and graduate in three years.”
More work, less time
Those dead-set on graduating in three years should be prepared for extra study hours. While some schools like UNC Greensboro only allow students with a certain number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate credits to enter the three-year program, other schools like Hartwick College in New York require three-year students to take more courses per semester.
“We do not require summer study or online study, but we do require (three-year) students to take one additional course in the fall and the spring, and they take our January term,” says Hartwick President Margaret Drugovich. “(Three-year) students should be aware that to get a full degree, they’re going to have to put in those hours somewhere.”
Along with increased class time comes decreased time for outside jobs, internships and extracurricular activities, factors that could hurt students in the long run, says Gross.
“If you look at the skills that employers want — critical thinking, problem solving, oral and written skills, teamwork and collaborative skills — these also come from residential life experiences, community service, participating in athletics, developing into leadership roles within organizations,” she says. “If you truncate your (college) experience, you may not develop these lifelong skill sets, which don’t often appear overnight.”
Before enrolling in a three-year program, students should investigate whether it requires summer courses, online study or additional courses each semester, and weigh that against their current career and extracurricular plans. Extra coursework also requires extra academic support, says Drugovich. Along with researching how to fit the required courses in, students should also examine whether the school offers early registration, specialized academic advising and a guarantee that three-year students will get the classes they need on time.
“If students are well-prepared, focused and thoughtful about their studies, this kind of program can be a great success,” says Drugovich. “It’s just not for everyone.”