Should You Get Your Degree in Three Years?

The pinch of tuition has some students balking at the idea of a traditional four-year undergraduate degree program. A handful of colleges and universities are responding by implementing three-year programs to help students cut costs. But how much do students really benefit when they shave a year off of college?

“By completing a three-year degree program, students can end up saving about $10,000 in living expenses and $3,000 to $5,000 in tuition at a public college,” says Ken Clark, certified financial planner and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paying for College (Alpha; $18.95). Clark says even though many schools do not offer these programs, students are finding ways to take on more credits and finish school earlier, including attending summer courses at a community college for a fraction of their university’s price per credit hour.

The three-year model is not new; it’s common in Europe. Now, a number of institutions in the United States are following suit. “We know of three private colleges that are launching three-year degree programs in 2010—11 and four that did so in 2009—10,” says Tony Pals, director of communications for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a membership organization that represents more than 1,000 private universities and colleges.

“We recognized the growing concern from families about the cost of higher education,” says Jerry Greiner, president of Arcadia, a private university in Philadelphia. Given the rigors of Arcadia’s accelerated program, only top-tier incoming freshman are eligible to participate, says Greiner, who expects up to 15 students to take part this fall. “We are purposely selecting students for the program who are highly motivated and who have already demonstrated ability to do really well academically,” he says.

About 350 incoming freshmen are slated to begin a three-year academic journey at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) this fall. The school’s program  is designed for the growing number of high school seniors with transferable college credit earned through Advanced Placement (AP) courses and other early college programs. Incoming freshmen with 12 or more credit hours will be eligible to participate.

“By saving one full year of tuition and room and board, students will realize savings of about $8,000,” says Steve Roberson, dean of undergraduate studies. “We generally have seven or eight students each year who are able to graduate within three years, the UNCG in 3 program will make that goal possible for a lot more students.” Students will receive priority registration, and will average about 16 credits for their fall and spring semesters and two summer semesters, taking seven credits each. Students in these programs have the same amount of coursework as traditional students, but they’re able to avoid potential tuition hikes during the fourth year by graduating early.

Last year, House lawmakers in Rhode Island approved a bill that would allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years at state institutions. At the 2009 annual meeting of the American Council on Education, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who served as U.S. secretary of education from 1991 to 1993, encouraged institutions to adopt the three-year program.