Last week brought two significant events in the annals of the three-year bachelor’s degree. First, the president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut announced a new initiative to encourage the three-year degree on his campus. Second, Hartwick College in upstate New York graduated its first three-year class of a dozen students.
The three-year degree holds great promise as a solution to several problems vexing higher education.
One is affordability. At Wesleyan, the annual sticker price is $58,232, although the average student receiving grant aid pays only $21,854. A three-year degree eliminates most or all of that fourth-year tuition and potentially puts the student in the job market a year early.
Another is attainment. President Obama wants the nation to regain the world lead in college attainment (the share of adults with degrees) by 2020. A three-year degree accelerates the pace of completion and opens more seats in the higher-education pipeline. Plus, it’s well-documented that students who remain in college longer stand a progressively worse chance of ever graduating.
With the recent explosion of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate study, the time would seem ripe for a three-year BA. Lots of students now enter college with one or two semesters of college credit already completed.
Yet, the three-year option has been slow to catch on. There are myriad reasons. Ambitious students now routinely take a second or even a third major, convinced that this will make them look better to prospective graduate schools or employers. Public universities haven’t produced many three-year degrees for the same reason that they haven’t generated many four-year degrees: There is a slower pace of study in the public sector.
Some students do, in fact, finish in three years. The share of students who complete college in three years rose from 1 percent in 1998 to 2.5 percent in 2006, according to the most recent federal data I could find. (I have asked the Education Department for newer figures.)
But those students generally craft their own three-year degree, as Wesleyan President Michael Roth did, and not through an official three-year degree program.
Advocates of the three-year degree say the movement stands in need of a tipping point, such as a large public university system pledging to award some significant share of its degrees in three years by a set date. Some states have pledged to offer three-year degrees, but I’m not aware of any that have set specific goals for the program, and participation has been low.
Or, perhaps a three-year push at a prestigious school such as Wesleyan could draw enough attention to attract other players. The Wesleyan proposal, introduced on this blog, has set off a fresh round of national news coverage on the issue.
In an earlier post, I tried to find the largest three-year initiative in the nation. It could be Hartwick College, at least as measured by a tally of actual three-year graduates. American University has another promising three-year program, called Global Scholars, but it is too young to have yielded any graduates.
If you know of a more successful program, drop me a line.