Three-year bachelor’s programs allow students to complete their undergraduate degree in three years, rather than four. This can be accomplished by taking a more streamlined curriculum, taking more credit hours per semester, attending summer sessions, and/or taking online courses. Europe is currently leading the way for three-year BAs with the implementation of the Bologna Process, a collaborative initiative of 45 countries in Europe to achieve greater transparency, coordination and quality assurance among higher education institutions. The first educational cycle under the Bologna framework is a three-year bachelor’s degree.
The idea of a three-year BA has been brought up numerous times in the United States as a way to save undergraduates money and time; however, the idea has never really taken hold. Only a handful of schools currently offer three-year BAs, and many of the three-year programs offered in the past were halted because few students took advantage of them. Furthermore, students that initially enrolled in a three-year program often did not finish in three years. In 2001 the U.S. Department of Education reported that 4.2 percent of U.S. undergraduates finished with bachelor's degrees in three years, 57.3 percent graduated in four years, and 38.5 percent took more than four years to graduate.
Despite three-year programs historically being unpopular among students, university administrators and policy makers are revisiting the idea to make college more affordable and accessible. Some universities that currently offer three-year BAs, or plan to offer them in the near future, include Hartwick College in New York, Manchester College in Indiana, Seattle University, Bates College in Maine, Lipscomb University in Nashville, Southern New Hampshire University, and Ball State University in Indiana. Furthermore, a bill that requires all state institutions of higher education to create three-year bachelor's programs by 2010 was recently passed by Rhode Island’s House of Representatives.
The Case for Three-Year BA’s
Three-year program structures vary across universities, but they are all aimed at reducing the cost of college. The main benefit for students of having a three-year degree is that they are not required to pay for a fourth year of college. This saves students at public schools an average of $13,424 in tuition and room and board, and private school students $30,393.76 Moreover, students are able to enter the workforce a year earlier. This would add on average of $35,383 to their lifetime earnings.77 Combined, these benefits come to $48,807 for public school students and $65,776 for private school students. Students may also receive discounts for taking online or summer courses.
In addition, a higher percentage of college graduates than ever go on to graduate or professional schools. Three-year BA programs would be highly beneficial for these students. They could still be exposed to a classical liberal arts education, and would get in depth training in graduate school.
Three-year bachelor’s degrees also encourage more efficient use of university facilities by increasing their use during the summer.
The Case against Three-Year BA’s
Despite the substantial cost savings of three-year BA programs, they have not been popular among the majority of U.S. students. For instance, Albertus Magnus College, in Connecticut, offered a three-year BA program for several years in the 1990s by going from a semester system to a trimester system with the idea that students could take courses year round and graduate in three years. Most students, however, skipped a trimester each year and the program was eventually discontinued.
Four main arguments are made against three-year BA’s. First, because three-year programs have not been widely utilized there are not well established metrics for evaluating them. In the absence of such evaluating metrics it is argued that a three-year program may result in less content and poorer quality. However, this seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what a three-year BA requires. In general, students in three-year programs are required to earn the same number of credit hours as students in four year programs–they just do so in a shorter amount of time. The universities offering it stress that three-year BA programs are best suited for motivated individuals that can handle larger course loads and the fast pace of the programs. Most of these universities screen students, allowing only the most qualified to participate.
Second, employers in some fields may view a three-year degree as inferior to a four-year degree due to the lack of evaluating metrics for curriculum comparisons. A master’s degree may therefore become the minimum qualification rather than a bachelor’s degree. Although data on three-year degree programs is hard to come by, there have been some studies on employers’ views of the three-year bachelor’s degree in Europe under the first cycle of the Bologna Process. One such study, Alesi (2007), found that in general, some fields, such as R&D, some engineering fields, and law require the equivalent of the new Master’s degree, whereas production and logistics, sales and distribution and journalism would be open to both university and applied science bachelor’s graduates.
Third, students need to have a good idea of what they want to major in, as it is unlikely that they can change their major and still graduate in three years. This can be problematic as Dr. Fritz Group, founder of MyMajors.com, asserts that 80 percent of college-bound students have yet to choose a major and 50 percent of those that do declare a major change it—many doing so two or three times in the course of their undergraduate career. Three-year programs may therefore not be a realistic option for the majority of students, but they would be beneficial for those that know what they want to study, as it would expedite the undergraduate process so that they may begin graduate school or enter the work force a year early.
Fourth, it is argued that a three-year degree deprives students of the “traditional college experience,” characterized by a well rounded general education, in-class interaction with professors, extracurricular experiences, and study abroad. Hartwick College, however, has developed a three-year program that does not require students to take online or summer courses. This ensures in-class interaction with professors and enables students to study abroad or work in the summer.
Europe is forging the way for three-year BAs with the implementation of the Bologna Process; however, there are also some notable three-year BA programs offered in the United States. The following section outlines these programs.
Case Study 4.1: The Bologna Process The Bologna Declaration was signed in 1999 and represents a commitment by 45 countries in Europe to undertake reforms to achieve greater consistency and portability in their higher education systems by 2010. The framework is based on three cycles of higher education qualifications, the first being a three-year bachelor’s degree.
In contrast to four-year bachelor’s programs in the United States, three-year bachelor’s programs under the Bologna Process are more concentrated in a student’s chosen major, and therefore place less emphasis on general education. The first Bologna degrees were awarded in 2003, but many countries are still in the process of implementing the Bologna framework. There is therefore very little data available to assess the number of students that finish their bachelor’s degree in three years, or the relative rigor of the curriculums compared to the traditional bachelor’s degree earned in the United States.
Case Study 4.2: Southern New Hampshire University
Southern New Hampshire University has offered a three-year honors program in Business Administration since 1995. Program space is limited and the application process is selective; however, it saves admitted students the cost of tuition and room and board for a fourth year. This amounts to $39,118 in savings for students that live on campus and $30,942 for students that live with their parents.
The program is taught in the time frame of a traditional semester, but the course content is delivered through comprehensive and interdisciplinary modules instead of typical 3-credit classes. Students still complete 120 credits, the same number as students in a traditional four-year degree program; however, they are not required to take night, weekend or summer courses. Furthermore, more than 40 percent of the coursework is related to liberal arts and general education, providing students with a well-rounded education.
Case Study 4.3: Hartwick College, New York
Hartwick College announced in February, 2009, that it will offer a new three-year bachelor’s degree program. The program is designed to save students money as it will cut around $40,000 in tuition and room and board off the current cost of earning an undergraduate degree at Hartwick. If the opportunity cost of foregone earnings for attending college a fourth year was also included, which is on average $35,383 for an 18-24 year old with a bachelor’s degree, savings could amount to $75,383.
Hartwick’s three-year BA program is based on a two semester academic calendar that does not require students to take classes over the summer or online. Students who choose to participate in the three-year BA program must still complete the normal requirement of 120 hours of undergraduate study by averaging 18 hours each fall semester, 18 hours each spring semester, and 4 hours during a special January Term for three years.
Case Study 4.4: Manchester College, Indiana
Manchester College announced its Fast Forward Program in November, 2007 that allows students in any major to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years. The program consists of a more aggressive fall and spring schedule, a January session, two summer sessions and online courses. The program is designed for students who have a clear idea of where they are headed after college, whether it is graduate school, law school, medical school or a career in a specific field such as accounting, education or the sciences. It is estimated that the program can save students as much as $25,000 in tuition, fees, and room and board in addition to potentially earning a salary a year earlier.
There are some limitations to three-year BA programs; however, the costs must be weighed against the benefits to students of saving a fourth year of tuition and room and board, as well as starting a career or graduate school a year early. For ambitious students that can handle accelerated BA programs the savings are substantial, amounting to, on average, $48,807 for public school students and $65,776 for private school students that are employed following the completion of their degree.
Contention regarding the rigor and quality of three-year degree programs may ease with time as programs mature and produce results that are measureable and comparable to four year programs. A set of best practices and evaluating metrics may then be developed from which other universities may structure three-year programs that best meet students’ needs while maintaining a quality education.