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How the Three-Year Degree Could Save American Higher Ed

AUDIO | How the Three-Year Degree Could Save American Higher Ed
Three-year degrees have the capacity to realize massive savings for both institutions and students, but leaders need to commit to finding ways to reduce the cost of higher education before the idea can become reality.

The following interview is with Paul Weinstein, director of the graduate program in public management at Johns Hopkins University. Weinstein recently published a paper through the Progressive Policy Institute exploring the value of three-year degrees as a way to bring the cost of higher education down for today’s students. In this interview, he expands on that topic and shares his thoughts on the roadblocks that are making the wider adoption of three-year degree programming more difficult.

1. Why are three-year degrees valuable for today’s non-traditional students?

They’re valuable for all students. One, college is no longer the end of the line for most students. The majority of students who finish college with a degree go on to some type of graduate work, whether it’s a PhD or just a certificate. The second reason is cost. There are potential significant savings here up to 25 percent. We have four-year degrees not because of some great scientific study that said four years is the optimal time one needs to spend in college, but rather just out of circumstance and tradition.

There’s a really good question as to whether requiring four years of full-time study still makes sense, whether you could actually do this in a more expedited fashion. Looking at course loads that could be reduced, that obviously would benefit non-traditional students who are working part time or need to take some time off so they would benefit from the lower cost and also from the quicker path to getting a degree.

2. What are a few of the trends leading to the increasing popularity of three-year degrees?

We’re seeing its acceptance elsewhere in the world. In Europe, for example, they are moving to three-year degrees as part of the Barcelona Agreement that was signed 15 years ago. In the U.S., we’re starting to see a number of institutions offering a three-year option. The problem is that the U.S. schools are not really designing those three-year degrees in a way that makes it accessible for the typical student. They’re really just accelerating four-year degrees for high-performing students.

3. Other than the time to completion, what are the differences between a three-year bachelor’s degree program and a four-year?

Not a lot, although it gets into how you tailor the program. In our paper, we basically left it up to the schools and their accreditors to decide how they want to get to the three-year model. Some schools might decide to look at whether they are requiring too many courses or too many credit hours. Another approach would be to extend the semesters in the fall and the spring to add some additional credit hours. You could also look at requiring summer sessions as another option.

There are a couple of different ways that would make the three-year degree a little different. Ultimately it’s about time. That is the big difference. The third big difference is money—the 25 percent potential savings.

One of the big issues here is that there’s a growing recognition that the existing college financial system is not sustainable. Universities and colleges are feeling strained, students are feeling an incredible amount of strain, the federal government’s running out of resources, state governments have already cut back. Unfortunately, most reform proposals out there would just continue to feed the beast and provide more aid, which then allows schools to continue to raise the price rather than actually doing anything to bring it down.

This proposal looks at how you can actually cut the cost for students and also keep most universities whole, financially.

4. What are some of the roadblocks that are getting in the way of the wider adoption of three-year degree programs?

One is obviously tradition. Another issue is bureaucracy. Finally, unless there is national acceptance of three-year degrees, it’s going to be very difficult to make this happen. You’ve really got to make three-year degrees the norm and not just an option.

5. How can leaders overcome some of these obstacles?

It’s a matter of educating our political leaders and our academic leaders. It’s going to probably take some time. Both Republicans and Democrats are eager to do something on college, but they’re also very wary of rocking the boat. We have in many ways the finest higher educational system in the world, and as a result there’s a sort of reticence for these are large, broad changes. On the other hand, we now can look at Europe, we can look at elsewhere this is happening. One of the best arguments to convince our leaders that this makes sense is that we’re at a competitive disadvantage if we continue to follow the four-year approach while the rest of the world is moving to three years and moving their students onto graduate school at a quicker pace, students learning things at a quicker pace, and then getting into the career cycle more quickly.

The other issue is that the levels of debt that students have whether they graduate or don’t graduate are becoming so significant that it’s starting to weigh down on general economic growth.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of three-year degree programs and what it’s going to take to get this from concept to reality across the board?

The three-year degree also will help potentially with college completion rates. That might not seem intuitive to a lot of people. A lot of folks that have read the proposal have pointed out that 50-60 percent of students now graduate in four years. That’s absolutely true, we have a problem with the fact that people are taking more time to get through college and part of that is cost. A lot of students are starting to go part-time or they’re having to take time off or they just become overwhelmed by the amount of student loans that they start seeing mounting up and they simply drop out of school.

This proposal can help with some of that college retention and make sure that people are more likely to graduate because of the reduction in the amount of time you’re going to have to spend in school and a reduction in cost. The benefits are not just for the full-time students but also for those part-time students.

This interview has been edited for length.

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