3-Year College Degrees should be the Rule

Getting a Bachelor’s degree shouldn’t be a one-way ticket to decades of debt repayment. Shortening the standard duration of college degree programs is one way to move the needle.

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3-Year College Degrees

With many students drowning in a pool of debt due to increased tuition costs, it’s time to start thinking about the entire college model. Not only have costs increased, but earnings are stagnant making the cost-benefit tough to justify. Part of that problem is 4-year colleges have stubbornly remained the norm. Changing the standard to 3-year college degrees is one way to help address this issue. Making this change along with more robust trade, vocational, and apprenticeship programs can dramatically change the landscape of American education.

While this may sound simple, it’s not, and would bring major change to any traditional 4-year college. The shift would mean kids graduating earlier, and a need to bring larger class sizes to maintain revenue and utilization. For a true impact to be made, credit hours, not just years need to be shaved. That means changing the curriculum and reducing the number of elective or core classes required. It’s a big undertaking that understandably many in academia would rather not address.

That said, it would be more than worth it if we can positively impact the debt load of millions of people every year.

Benefits of 3-Year College Degrees

Less Debt

According to debt.org, the average student loan debt for a borrower in 2017 is expected to be more than $38,000. This debt coupled with others from things like credit cards and cars will cripple their ability to save early in their careers. We’ve already seen the impact via lower homeownership rates by young people. In fact, many are now finding their way to a parent’s basement after college to deal with all the costs of living without the necessary income.

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Move to Advance Degrees Quicker

Students in today’s world find themselves graduating with Bachelor’s degrees only to have inadequate job opportunities. Given that we now are in a knowledge economy, getting an advanced degree or specialized training can be required. If that’s the case, these students will incur even more costs. A 3-year college degree would move students to this next step quicker and again reduce their overall financial burden.

One less year of spending, and one more year of earnings. That can lead to a significant difference in debt.

More Focus

No doubt, it can be nice to have time to figure out a career path. But do students really need two years or more to set a path in motion? In certain countries, the expectation is to make a decision before even entering college in regards to your area of focus.

Just because we pick a focus area does not mean someone is married to that decision for life. Even if we stick to the 4-year model, plenty of people fail to make the best career decision for the long haul.

Trimming college to 3-years would stick closer to the entrepreneurial mantra of “fail fast”. Get out into the job market and figure out if it’s the right career. For some who are just coasting, being forced to make some tough decisions earlier in their career might serve them well.

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Learn on the Job

As is the concept with apprenticeships, some would argue there are no better means of learning than being on the job. My experience, as with most I have talked to, say the majority of what they use today was learned on the job. Let’s get these students out there working, learning, and earning money at the same time. Most employers these days only use the degree as a barometer of intelligence rather than an indicator of needed skillset. It shouldn’t take more than three years to prove the worth of a student’s brain.

Helps Older Workers Changing Career

People are working until later in life these days for a variety of reasons including unmanageable student debt. Changing careers is a  realistic goal for people in mid-life or later. But most focus on two-year trade or vocational options rather than another bachelor’s. Providing access to 3-year bachelor’s degrees would help make going back to school more realistic for this demographic. 

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Bigger retirement accounts

People have lost sight of the long-term impact student debts will have on young people throughout their lives. The ability to save money in the first 10 to 20 years after entering the workforce can have the greatest impact on savings later in life. But these debts leave much of their disposable income going towards interest payment rather than retirement accounts.

We will all be impacted by this problem as more and more people will reach retirement age without the necessary savings.

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Challenges of Moving to this System


In order to truly make a difference, since most colleges charge by credit hour, we would need to see a reduction in classes. That, or simply create a system where schools are paid by the year, not the credit hour. The best argument, however, can be made for eliminating those classes that truly are not critical. Anyone whose been through four years of college can probably identify at least five classes that fit in this category.

At the same time, these classes help to round out a student’s education. They can certainly help to show people different topics they’ve never seen or thought of before. This, in turn, can lead to a student taking a different direction with their degree, and ultimately career. Some of this would be lost when dropping elective and/or core classes.

This may be the best argument against a 3-year college degree. It’s a good argument, but given the current crisis of debt, something has to give. These classes, while impactful, are one area we can sacrifice to move the ball forward and fix the larger problem.

Less time to choose a path

There is no doubt that young students are maturing rapidly during this time of life. Let’s not minimize the benefit of time when it comes to choosing the right career path. An additional year is a big help to some that don’t know what they would like to do.

The question is, is this truly a necessity or just a matter of societal norm at this point? What are the odds of someone choosing the right career path even in four years? A survey conducted by EdX found that 29% of people between the ages of 25-44 of completely changed careers since joining the workforce. That means we don’t have a stellar batting average regardless of the number of years in college.

And that doesn’t account for all the people who would like to change careers but haven’t found a way out. It should come as no surprise. How likely is a teenager, regardless of having 1 or 2 years to make a decision, to choose the right career path for their entire life? None of us know what a job actually brings until we’ve been in the workforce. And that’s one more argument for 3-year college degrees.

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Countries Using This Model

Getting a college degree in 3 years is not an unheard-of model. In fact, countries like Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Indian have 3-year degrees as the standard. And some colleges in the United States are testing 3-year degrees as well.

The consensus seems the programs in the U.S. are falling short. That’s because they aren’t reducing the number of credit hours, just condensing the timeframe. That means the only likely participants are going to be highly motivated people willing to put in far above average work times.

Not only does that limit the demand of students, but it also does little to quell cost. If tuition is paid by the credit hour, then the real savings come only through room and board, and another miscellaneous spending. While that’s a start, rethinking the class load and tuition cost should be the ultimate goal.

Schools Offering 3-Year College Degrees

It’s difficult to find all the schools offering 3-year programs. The most extensive list we were able to find is provided by the Progressive Policy Institute. Here’s the list of universities they have listed as currently offering at least one 3-year degree.

If you are serious, take a closer look at the list in their document (scroll to the bottom after opening the link) as it calls out specific programs. It also identifies if that program actually saves you tuition, or if you pay for the same course load over the 3 years. It also tells you if taking summer courses in a requirement in order to finish it this time.

InstitutionDate Started
Bates College1965
Ball State2005
Chatham University2009
Lake Forest College2009
Lipscomb University2009
Hartwick College2009
Southern Oregon University2009
University of North Carolina Greensboro2010
University of Massachusetts, Amherst2010
Sterling College2010
Mount St. Mary’s University2010
American University2011
Judson University2011
Bluffton University,2011
Grace College2011
Lesley University2011
St. John’s University, Grymes Hill Campus2011
Ashland University2012
Kent State2012
Akron University2012
University of Houston, Victoria2012
Thomas More College2012
Wentworth Institute of Technology2012
University of Iowa2015
Purdue University2016
Belmont Abbey College2016
Ursuline College2017
New York University2017
State University of New York-PotsdamN/A
University of San FranciscoN/A

The Bottom Line

Regardless of the ultimate reform, something needs to be done to relieve the burden of student debt. We should begin addressing the problem at its core by finding unique ways to reduce costs.

Providing 3-year college degrees is a first step towards reducing the overall cost as long as we embrace a true reduction in credits required. We need to get passed the cultural norm, and fear of the changes this will bring to the system as it will benefit the student in the end.

No doubt, hard work, and some pain will be incurred to make this change. But helping students on the front end will also save a lot of heartache years down the road when retirement comes knocking.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines, or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


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