How many can finish bachelor’s in 3 years?

As college costs rise, many states are exploring three-year bachelor’s degrees at public universities, reports College Bound. Increasingly, students arrive with Advanced Placement or dual-enrollment credits. If they’re willing to work hard, they can save money and start earning earlier.

However, The Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree: Reform Measure or Red Herring? leans toward the herring.

Not many participate in these fast-track programs. It’s not suited for many students who work, rely on Pell Grants (which are no longer available year-round), or lack the academic preparation for college, the report suggests.

Getting a program going has costs and requires key changes in campus operations. This investment may not pay off without widespread student participation.

Then there is the concern over rushing the college experience. Some may need four years or more to really develop critical-thinking skills, become engaged in campus life, and make full meaning of their new knowledge.

Fast tracking works only for motivated, college-ready, AP-credit-bearing students who don’t want to pay ever-rising college tuition for four (or five or six) years of engagement in campus life. They could graduate, get a job and eat pizza with their work buddies. Surely there are enough students of this type to motivate colleges to design three-year degree programs.

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  1. My family would have settled for a real shot at graduating in 4 years instead of 5 for our dauighter. Extremely inept counseling coupled with a science major made that impossible. And expensive. Campus life palls, for many young people, after the initial honeymoon period, and finishing is much more important.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    During some research into the “Carnegie unit,” I discovered that four years as a requirement for high school and college didn’t become standard until the beginning of the last century. In fact, the idea that education should be measured by inputs (“seat time”) rather than outputs (some sort of assessment) was a contested one.

    Perhaps we need to revisit those old controversies.

  3. “Then there is the concern over rushing the college experience. Some may need four years or more to really develop critical-thinking skills, become engaged in campus life, and make full meaning of their new knowledge.”

    None of which actually are of long-term benefit to the student or actually happen in four years at college.

    Let’s see, 120 credits in six semesters, so that’s 20 credits a semester. That’s definitely doable as long as scheduling allows for all major and gen ed requirements to be filled. Throw in AP/ college in HS credits and a few summer courses, and three years seems easy…again, assuming like EB pointed out, that you don’t have inept counselors and horrible class scheduling.

  4. My public college (I graduated in 1997) guaranteed graduation in 4 years if you stayed on schedule (ie space would be open in classes if you stayed on schedule). We also had a senior research requirement. While in many cases a 3 year path to degree could work, there would be a trade-off in that students in the sciences might have a hard time getting in their pre-reqs in time to take the classes that would help them in the lab. The schedule could be retooled to run year-around, but as it currently stands at a lot of colleges, many specialist classes (senior level engineering or science) are offered once/year and have years of requirements.

    A lot of students who worked on campus in the summer chose to take electives/other requirements to lighten their loads so that they could spend more time on research or working a paying job, but there wasn’t much that could be done to speed progress through a linear set of requirements.

  5. It’s difficult enough to graduate in 4 years in any accredited engineering program. There’s been periodic talk of making engineering undergrad degrees into 5 year degrees for at least the last 30 years. The course requirements (many not available as AP credit) and scheduling difficulties lead to the those undergrad degrees taking longer.

    • Yeah, I only graduated in four years by taking a couple classes in the summer. Instead of 120 hours, it’s ~135 hours and there’s no way you could cram that into six semesters. Less than 10 hours of that are classes that don’t involve math, you’d never survive a 22-hour load in a semester.

  6. A certain percentage of students at colleges we’ve visited have participated in study abroad programs during their undergraduate years. In effect, they’re taking three years on campus for a four-year degree.

  7. I finished college in 3 years in the early 70s. I took a regular class load of 15 credits a semester first year and had a work-study job. Then I stayed on campus for the next 2 summers taking 2 to 4 courses and working and then 18 credits every semester and a work-study assignment and volunteering at the college newspaper. I found the workload made me focused more and my grades, which were pretty good to start, soared. Granted there wasn’t much time for craziness or laziness but I still had time to date, go to concerts and see my family on holidays. My approach saved me money and as the oldest of 10 children from a family of low middle income that was extremely important. Do I wish I had had a more leisurely college life – sure. But it was still a great experience and my debt burden after graduation was less. I hope today’s students have the same option I did.

  8. lightly seasoned says:

    If a student is coming in with dual credit and AP credit, then she does not have 120 credits to complete. She may have 100; that would put her on track to graduate in less time. I see this option exploited mostly by sharp students who know they will be doing a graduate program — they speed up the undergraduate to get to their professional studies faster. The schools don’t do anything special for these students — it’s all the same program — they’ve just met some elective and pre-req credit coming in.

    However, I’d doubt this will be an option for highly selective (very expensive) schools, which usually don’t give credit for AP exams or dual credit. If you go to Yale, you take 120 credits regardless.

  9. Not that many students with five or six AP classes of credit are going to CSUs, and it’s the equivalent of the CSUs, not UCs, that would want to offer the allure of getting out in 3 years.