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Should Colleges Offer Three-Year Degrees?

More schools are considering it as a way for students to save money and get a jump on entering the workforce

Who doesn't love Google? In the blink of an eye, the search engine delivers useful information about pretty much any subject imaginable. I use it all the time, and I'm guessing you do too.

The four years I spent as an undergraduate were the most transformative of my adult life, and I needed every one of them to transition from high school to graduate school and beyond. But times have changed since then.

Many students now enter college highly motivated, tech-savvy, and having completed several college-level courses in high school. At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), nearly 300 of the first-year students who entered in fall of 2009 had at least 12 semester hours of transferable college credit.

For ambitious students who meet admission criteria, the option of an accelerated path to graduation in three years makes sense. Students enrolled in three-year degree programs are able to save a year of tuition, fees, and room and board expenses. With the cost of college soaring and the tough economic climate making it harder for many to pay, the savings can make a real difference for some students.

Three-year students earn the same high-quality degree but at an accelerated pace by taking classes year-round and online. As a result, they have the opportunity to begin graduate school or start a career a year sooner.

For admission into UNCG's three-year program, students must enter with 12 or more credit hours of transferable college course work. They receive priority registration and special advising that includes careful planning and goal setting.

A three-year degree program is not for every student or every academic program. But for students who are highly motivated and focused, universities should provide the option for them to save both the time and the money.

David H. Perrin
Provost, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

With many students and their families struggling to pay their college bills, a three-year degree has obvious appeal. In one stroke, college costs drop by 25 percent, and students can start earning money a year earlier. Like most quick fixes, however, a three-year degree may have unanticipated consequences that make it a dubious bargain.

To begin with, students may discover that a three-year B.A. is worth less in the marketplace. Economists calculate that each additional year of education brings an average earnings boost of 10 to 15 percent, regardless of whether students earn a degree. If so, dropping a year of college will presumably reduce graduates' annual earnings significantly.

It is also worth asking which courses will disappear if the college experience is a year shorter. Professors will not want to reduce the course requirements for majors, and students will resist giving up electives.

The most likely cuts, therefore, will come in general education requirements, where students can learn a foreign language, develop writing skills, encounter other cultures, study ethics, and broaden their interests by exploring literature and history. If these courses disappear and the B.A. degree grows more vocational, the loss to society will be subtle but real.

At the same time, colleges would have to cope with the loss of a quarter of their students. Ivy League universities can simply admit more freshmen. But most institutions would have to lay off professors, and those without enough students to cover their fixed costs could be forced to close.

So while there may be some short-term benefits to three-year degrees, there's simply no way to calculate the cost to students, and to society, of a cheapened education.

Derek Bok
Former President, Harvard University

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, October 4, 2010)