Home Online Education Access and Affordability Some Colleges and Universities Considering Three-Year Degrees in Attempt to Increase Access while Reducing Costs

Some Colleges and Universities Considering Three-Year Degrees in Attempt to Increase Access while Reducing Costs


Questions of access and affordability have plagued higher education for many years.  Coupled with the implications of the recent global economic downturn, these issues have received even greater consideration in the last several years.  As college administrators attempt to tackle the problems associated with providing greater access and affordability, creative ideas are being formulated.

One such idea recently gaining attention is scaling back the length of time it takes to receive a bachelors degree from the traditional four years to three.  This past February, at the annual conference of the American Council on Education, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) addressed attendees and suggested that instead of four years, colleges should consider offering bachelor degrees that can be earned in only three.  Alexander suggested that doing so would not only obviously cut the length of time required to earn a degree by one-fourth, but also cut the cost of earning the same degree by as much as one-third.  Alexander was quoted in a February 2009 article in Inside Higher Ed as equating such a concept to the development of a fuel-efficient vehicle.

Supporters of this idea include the late George Keller, who led the University of Pennsylvania’s study of higher education and some colleges and universities are already executing the idea.  For example, Ball State University in Indiana and Bates College in Maine offer three year degrees in about 30 degree programs, according to a May 2009 article in The Washington Post.  Three year degrees are the norm in many international universities of prestige, including the University of Cambridge and Oxford University in England. 

Critics of the idea note that many of today’s college students are not finishing their degrees in four years, making it highly unlikely that they would effectively complete their course work within three years to earn their degrees.  A December 2008 article in the Christian Science Monitor notes that nearly half of all American students who enroll in a four-year college do not finish within six years.  Such statistics provide fodder for critics who argue that if students are not completing four-year degrees within six years, shortening the amount of time allowed to earn a degree will not solve any problems and may instead create additional ones, including creating a large number of college dropouts who may never complete their degrees.  Indeed, certain segments of the American student population, namely minority groups and the poor, are less likely than middle and upper class white students to complete their degrees at all.  Critics argue that decreasing the timeline for earning a bachelors degree from four to three years may serve only to discourage such already underrepresented populations in higher education institutions.

Four-year bachelor degrees have been commonplace in America since the founding of the earliest universities.  Such programs were designed to provide a broad curriculum, offering students the opportunity to take a variety of courses in many disciplines.  In the 1990s, a handful of colleges and universities attempted to offer three year degree programs but most abandoned the initiatives for a variety of reasons.  For example, Albertus Magnus College in Connecticut attempted three year degree programs in the mid-1990s by shifting from the traditional semester timeline to a trimester, allowing students to take classes year-round and finish within three years.  That school eventually abandoned the programs after finding that many students were taking at least one semester off each year and finishing only after four years.  Upper Iowa University still has a three year plan available to students but according to Linc Morris, Vice President of Enrollment Management at the school (as quoted in the article from Inside Higher Ed cited above), no students are currently enrolled in that degree plan and no students have even attempted it in the last three or four years. 

While access to and affordability of a college education are daunting problems for the world of higher education, it seems unlikely given available statistics that three year degree programs will provide the quick fix that many seem to be seeking.  While some highly ambitious students may decide to pursue such degree paths, the experiences of Albertus Magnus College and Upper Iowa University seem to indicate that students enjoy summer vacations and will continue to demand them.   Additionally, if only half of America’s college students graduate in six years, is the better focus for us to create three year programs or find ways to increase the percentage of students who can graduate in six years?

With President Obama’s goal of bringing America back to its preeminent position as one of the world’s leaders in college graduation rates, it seems like a tempting solution for college administrators and policy makers to float ideas like three year degrees.  We must remember, however, that very few corporations have captured markets by focusing on a solution for a select few.  Let’s increase the number of high school graduates attending college and the number of students graduating from college.  When we have achieved a significant increase, then let’s focus on finding ways to shorten the time if we can truly find a way to cut the costs by a fourth as well.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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