Published on 2014/12/05
The EvoLLLution | What Is the True Potential of Three-Year Degrees?
Three-year degrees have value for the most dedicated and driven students, but ultimately would do little to address the low graduation rates of America’s higher education institutions.

The disruptions and competitive pressures impacting US higher education are, at least in part, the result of an industry that possesses neither the capacity nor, increasingly, the will to adapt to the realities of an evolving marketplace.

While demographic swings and the proliferation of technology have resulted in some incremental shifts in how learning is facilitated, we’re still struggling to understand what knowledge should look like in the 21st century and how it should be produced and disseminated. The symptoms of this divergence are as clear as they are compelling. America’s colleges and universities are increasingly defined by rising costs, marginal rates of matriculation, lack of access, questionable quality and a relatively static higher education business model. Our institutions of higher learning cannot educate citizens for a 21st-century marketplace with a 19th-century business model.

In response to some of the factors and conditions in today’s higher education environment, many policy makers as well as higher education leaders are advocating for three-year bachelor’s degree programs. Proponents of this approach argue that three-year programs will reduce costs, more efficiently allocate resources, and provide greater access to higher education while also reducing the opportunity costs associated with attending college. Though some institutions have adopted three-year undergraduate degree programs, these initiatives remain the exception and are largely confined to private colleges and universities. A report from the American Association of State and Colleges and Universities in 2012 suggested that three-year degree programs account for as little as two percent of programs across the country.

Nonetheless, it’s not hard to appreciate the impetus for a shorter undergraduate degree experience. Many higher education institutions remain staggeringly inefficient. Some of the by-products of these inefficiencies—particularly the allocation of expensive and scarce faculty resources—would be partially mitigated by a reduction in the time it takes to earn an undergraduate degree. With disproportionately high general education requirements, the mottled quality and relevance of many elective offerings and the fact that many students ultimately earn more credits than necessary to graduate (as a result of inadequate advising and because many students change their majors), the idea of right-sizing the undergraduate experience in this country from four years to three is seductive—but it is also ephemeral.

For students who are driven and who possess the requisite maturity necessary to matriculate through an undergraduate experience in 25 percent less time, three-year programs could have considerable merit. For selected students at certain selective institutions, this represents one of the many viable options to address some of the challenges of today’s higher education marketplace. There exists a wide range of options and alternatives for higher education credentialing today—including the traditional four-year university experiences, online or blended experiences, proprietary institutions as well community colleges—and the three-year bachelor’s degree is one more.

For the three-year program, however, the idea of scaling such an approach to a level at which it would actually impact the cost structure or the accessibility of today’s higher education market seems improbable. Moreover, there are important questions as to how such a change would impact many of the enormous secondary benefits of a traditional university experience. Is three years really enough time to enable students to struggle, grow, adapt, engage, and to learn so that they emerge as responsible, thoughtful and contributing members of society? Is three years sufficient time for students to develop the necessary sense of self that is so integral to the college experience? It seems to me that a three-year degree option would only be useful for a very small segment of college-age young adults.

The most significant impediment to large-scale migration toward three-year degree programs is our existing graduation rates. The average overall four-year graduation rates is only 37.9 percent across all universities according to the US Department of Education’s IPEDS report of 2011. At public institutions, four-year graduation rates are 31.3 percent. Six year graduation rates are 58.3 percent nationally and 56 percent among public universities. Graduation rates for private institutions are higher but still unremarkable at 52.4 percent and 65.4 percent respectively. The data for proprietary institutions suggest substantially lower than average graduation rates. With existing graduation rates as low as they are, it’s hard to make a serious case to offer a three-year undergraduate program for any but the most dedicated student. Moreover, there is little indication that colleges and universities would have any more success in graduating students in three years than they do with student in four or five years.

Many people expected Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to fundamentally transform the higher education landscape when they first came on the scene five years or so ago. Like MOOCs, three-year degree programs will alter the industry and the margins offering an additional level of choice for students seeking it. Until US colleges and universities have the incentive to transform their operating model, this is the most we can expect.

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