Three-year degrees: Cutting college costs by cutting the time you spend in school

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Some colleges are taking action to address rising student debt. They're not cutting costs by cutting tuition, though. They're slicing the time it takes to earn a degree.


Since the recession, nearly two dozen schools have introduced three-year bachelor degrees.

For decades, intrepid students have been taking heavy course loads and studying through summers to complete their coursework at an accelerated pace on their own. But now, colleges are formalizing the process as they grapple with curtailed state and federal funding and a more socioeconomically diverse body of students looking for ways to limit student debt.


Purdue University's School of Communication recently received a $500,000 prize from the university to create a three-year degree.

University officials say the degree will help students save money by eliminating a year of tuition and a sometimes-even-more-costly year of room and board. It will also let graduates enter the workforce a year earlier than students pursuing a four-year degree.

Professor Marifran Mattson, the head of the school and one of the people spearheading the program, which launched this year, told Fusion the program might be an ideal fit for students who commute to campus or are open to giving up a year of "traditional experience and extracurriculars."

"It really is a great kind of affordability option," she said.

Nationally, there are a growing number of "nontraditional" students - people who may have worked for several years before deciding to pursue a degree, people who may have families and established homes and routines away from their college campus. Mattson say it's not clear that Purdue has seen an increase in such students, but the school does have a number of commuters who live off-campus.


A three-year program is not for everyone, she noted, since students have to "opt in" by the second semester of their freshmen year and they will need to study through both of their summers. But for a student who knows from the start that he wants to study communication and is eager to enter the workforce, it may be a perfect fit. And, she said, students will still have opportunities to study abroad and pursue internships.

Whether her program succeeds remains unclear because the first students are just enrolling, but, as the Wall Street Journal noted recently, three-year programs can present some challenges.


A limited number of enrollees at schools offering three-year degrees actually graduate on time because any deviation from the course plan can create delays, students can feel that their social and networking opportunities are curtailed, and Pell Grant funding isn't always available for summer classes. There has also been criticism that three-year programs take attention away from the fact that less than half of college attendees graduate in the traditional four years.

Mattson said that helping students graduate in three years "doesn't hurt" efforts to get people through in four years. Her school, she added, is also committed to using some of its prize money to help students who lack access to Pell funding over the summer stay enrolled. The school will also make spaces available in classes that three-year students need to graduate so there aren't bureaucratic delays.


While she doesn't see all schools adopting three-year programs - some simply cannot be condensed down to three, she said - in the current economy, it's something she thinks is worth considering.

Nationally, three-year programs are limited and most don't enroll many students, so assessing them can be a challenge. But, where it's almost unheard of for schools to slice tuition to help students cut costs, a growing number of schools are offering three-year programs to help limit debt.


Southern New Hampshire University has had a three-year honors program since the 1990s, and St. John's University established a program several years ago at one of its campuses projected to save students nearly $30,000. Four years ago, Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland began offering a three-year degree option for all majors. Most of the universities with such programs are smaller, liberal arts schools, but bigger names like Purdue and the University of Iowa have begun to enter the field. American University's School of International Service recently began offering a three-year honors program, although a university spokesman said its designed more to serve people who know at the outset what degree they want to pursue and less as a cost-saving measure, since internships and study abroad, which can be costly, are integral parts of the program, as is living with other participants to create a sense of community.

Emily Elliot-Meisel graduated from American University's program in May with a degree in international studies.


"It was a good fit for me," she said. "It's not necessarily a good fit for everybody."

"You have to find your footing quicker [than in a four-year program]," she said, "but it's nice to have that plan kind of already in place."


Elliot-Meisel will begin a Fulbright scholarship in Brazil next March. The one downside of the program for her, she said, was that she wasn't able to study abroad for a full year, but added, "I don't know what I would have done with another year, honestly."

The cost savings was an added benefit, she said, as is the ability to enter the workforce a year ahead of some of her peers.


Professor Sarah Cleeland-Knight, co-director and faculty advisor for the program said universities need to consider reevaluating traditional models of teaching just fall and spring semesters.

"When I look at the facilities over the summer that sit empty," she told Fusion, "it might be better to be using those more."


While the Education Department hasn't explicitly endorsed three-year degrees, officials have repeatedly backed the idea of giving course credit to people, namely veterans, who enter college with job skills, and urged schools to consider "innovative" ways to cut costs.

Three-year bachelors degree programs make sense, Elliot-Meisel said, "for people who have an idea before college of what they want to do."


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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