Will Three-Year Bachelor’s Degrees Catch on in the U.S.?

Will Three-Year Bachelor’s Degrees Catch on in the U.S.?

Has the time arrived for three-year bachelor’s degrees to become the status quo in the U.S.? About 50 years ago, the idea was raised. Other than a short reprisal in the early 2000s, the three-year-degree concept never gained much momentum, until recently.

In April of this year, InsideHigherEd.com reported, “Representatives from a dozen colleges met at Georgetown University to discuss three-year bachelor’s degree pilot programs” as a potential solution to improve student outcomes while addressing costs.  (Moody, Josh. “The Push for a Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree.” April 7, 2023. InsideHigherEd.com.)

Prompted by several headwinds – from a growing perception that you can earn a good standard of living without college, serious hesitancy about taking on debt to go to college, a 40% dropout rate, and a potential six-year completion timeline – the pool of applicants looking to pursue higher education in the U.S. is shrinking.

While three-year degrees are the status quo in the U.K. and much of the European Union, the U.S. has been slow to jump on the bandwagon. In truth, it didn’t need to, with enrollment steadily increasing for decades, even among students from outside the U.S. Now that the tides have turned, it seems like a growing number of educational institutions are open for discussing the three-year degree.

Originally, three-year degree programs simply accelerated the timeline for completing 120 credits. Today’s discussions are going further, by looking at whether the number of credits for a degree should be reduced to 90 or 100; whether 30 hours of electives should be eliminated; whether a three-year degree program should be offered alongside a four-year program; and more.

One school is looking at offering three 30-credit certificate programs that can be accumulated to add up to a bachelor’s degree. As revealed by HecchingerReport.com, NewU – a startup in downtown D.C. – is offering the three-year degree at a locked-in rate. Still, others are considering offering a bachelor’s plus a master’s in four years for certain programs.

Schools represented at the Georgetown University gathering referenced earlier are from different geographies, represent a mix of public and private institutions, and have different goals. Some are just beginning to look at the idea while others are ready to launch, pending accrediting body approval, which isn’t guaranteed.  (For example, the New England Commission of Higher Education denied New England College’s proposal to offer a 100-credit criminal justice degree.)

Even if approval is attained, some – like those in California and Pennsylvania – face an additional hurdle: state law requires 120 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree. (That doesn’t even begin to address what happens to master’s programs that require a four-year undergraduate degree for entry.)

Still, HecchingerReport.org reports, “Already, a surprising 12 percent of full-time private and 10 percent of full-time public university and college students are finishing four-year degrees within three years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.”

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