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A College Degree in Three Years? Why America Needs to Get on Board

Three-year degree programs save money and help students get on with their lives, but American students aren't signing up. They should be.

You'd think that given the spiraling cost of college, American students would jump at the chance to finish up school in three years instead of the typical four. With a three-year accelerated degree, parents have to fork over less cash for tuition and room and board, the family's loan burden is lighter, and students can get on with their career plans earlier. How does this not make sense? But despite the best efforts of both public and private universities to promote accelerated programs, students are sticking with the four-year college tradition. That's too bad because a three-year degree is a smart idea that we should be adopting.

American colleges typically offer four-year programs because that was the British tradition and Harvard, the first university in America, continued it. Our cousins in the U.K. abandoned the four-year schedule for the shorter three-year one a long time ago. But, according to the Washington Post, recession-inspired accelerated programs on this side of the Atlantic are failing miserably. Lake Forest College outside of Chicago has had zero takers for its accelerated program. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro started an accelerated program last fall and only had five students sign up. Ball State University in Indiana had a mere 29 enrollees, and Manchester College, also in Indiana, only had 20 students. The three-year Global Scholars program at American University in Washington is seen as a success. Fifty-eight students are expected to enroll this fall, out of a freshman class of about 1,200 students.

So why are American students resisting compressing four years of learning into a much less expensive three? Part of the problem is that there hasn't been a wholesale adoption of three-year college programs. If Harvard were to announce that it's switching its entire undergraduate program over to a rigorous three-year experience—take it or leave it—or if the 10-campus University of California system made the switch, that would set a new trend and other schools would be sure to adopt it. But for now, three-year programs are still seen as novelties.

Another issue is that because three-year programs are so intense and structured, a freshman needs to know right away what she wants to major in, and then stick to a pretty rigid curriculum. That leaves a lot less time for intellectual exploration, and if you want to change majors, you're screwed. One solution is to change the way high school is set up to give students more opportunities to figure out what career they want, which is something plenty of education reformers are calling for already. The other obvious solution is for schools to change the programs so that there's more wiggle room in case a student decides to switch from economics to sociology.

Of course, one other reason we balk at changing college to a three-year experience has nothing to do with academics and everything to do with the cultural experiences and freedom students have when they're in college. It's a real luxury to be able to savor the college experience and absorb the learning environment, and, OK, the partying and social life. There really is no time in our lives like the time we spend on campus.

But I have two sons and given the rising costs of higher education, the prospect of putting them through college in another decade, or seeing them have to borrow astronomical amounts of money to get a degree, makes me sweat. Ultimately we're going to have to decide as a society whether that extra year of freedom is worth the financial cost.

In the meantime, Harvard, how about starting a new trend?

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