The 3-Year Bachelor’s Degree – Are We Ready for Change?

Josh Moody’s recent article in Inside Higher Ed about a dozen colleges working on a three-year bachelor’s degree may have surprised most people in higher education except for the teams from the 12 institutions selected by University of Pennsylvania Professor Emeritus Bob Zemsky and University of Minnesota Rochester Chancellor Lori Carrell.

I attended the meeting as an outside advisory panel member invited by Professor Zemsky and Chancellor Carrell. Like several other advisors or institutional participants, Bob Zemsky was my doctoral dissertation chair at Penn. He has openly promoted a three-year bachelor’s degree since 2009, and three years ago began talking with a few colleges about taking the idea from concept to reality.

After introductions from each of the participants, the colleges presented the status of their efforts to develop a three-year bachelor’s degree. The focus of the participating colleges was not to develop accelerated degree options (ways to take 120 credit hours over three years) but to redesign them to reduce the credit requirements leading to less time taking required courses and less tuition money spent by students. I was pleasantly surprised that each of the colleges proposed to cut 20 to 30 credit hours from a typical 120 credit hour, four-year bachelor’s degree.

Of the 12 colleges participating, one college (University of Minnesota at Rochester) has launched an accelerated bachelor’s degree. Three others – BYU Idaho, New England College, and Merrimack College – are at the stage where they are in the process of applying or reapplying to their respective accrediting bodies for approval. Even though two of the accreditors (NECHE and SACSCOC) interviewed by Josh Moody have a 120-credit hour requirement in their accreditation criteria, all of them said that they would consider a three-year bachelor’s degree for approval provided the evidence was available. There are two states, California and Pennsylvania, that have a minimum 120-credit hour requirement in their laws which would have to be changed for a college or university in those states to receive approval for a three-year bachelor’s degree.

Mr. Moody’s article accurately captured the status of each college participating. At the same time, there were nuances left unexplained that surfaced during the times allotted for socialization of the participants. Because I served as President of the American Public University System (APUS) for 16 years and am President Emeritus, I thought I would try to provide a little more background on their review even though I did not participate in any of APUS’s deliberations.

Dr. Nicole Drumhiller and Dr. Daniel Welsch, APUS deans, proposed to create a 90-credit hour bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity by eliminating 10 elective courses or 30 credit hours. Their review determined that the elimination of the electives does not change any of the expected learning outcomes for the degree. Additionally, the change still allows the students to select a concentration.

APUS has been an active participant in the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) for years and is in the process of reviewing its Institutional Learning Outcomes (ILO) maps to the latest version of the DQP (3.0). Beginning with the adoption of the DQP in 2012, all APUS degrees were mapped by faculty and academic leaders for expected learning outcomes as well as key learning milestones and assessments for courses in each degree program. Updates were made through a regular review process. The degree selected, a bachelor’s degree in Cybersecurity, was approved by NSA as part of its National Center of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity designation. The NSA process is rigorous, and approval takes years. The outcomes mapping process using the DQP requires a rigorous examination by faculty and academic leadership.

Drs. Drumhiller and Welsch explained that the three-year bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity would not replace the four-year degree in cybersecurity. It would be offered alongside the four-year degree as an alternative for students who know upfront that they want to earn the bachelor’s in cybersecurity and don’t have elective credits to be transferred from another institution. Because APUS offers monthly course starts, students have always been able to accelerate degrees by taking courses more frequently. APUS has also allowed students to build prior learning portfolios to receive academic credit for prior knowledge or experiences that match with specific courses. To provide a lower cost degree offering to students without changing the expected learning outcomes, the APUS team had to find a way to reduce the total number of credits required. Eliminating 10 elective courses accomplished that. Another reason for the cybersecurity degree selection is that cybersecurity is a field where employers are used to alternative credentialing, so a three-year bachelors would not be perceived as sub-standard if the same learning outcomes were achieved.

Because not all students are able to select a degree program immediately or they transfer credits from other colleges, Drs. Drumhiller and Welsch are not recommending the elimination of the four-year degree in cybersecurity. I suspect that more institutions considering a three-year degree who enroll adult students may choose to keep four-year degrees to allow students to transfer more credits particularly if the difference is primarily the elimination of elective courses.

I have several observations from attending the Georgetown convening. First, the depth of faculty and academic leader participation was evident throughout all the presentations. One institution reported that its faculty believes that it’s possible to reduce the credit hour requirement for many of its bachelor’s degrees. Second, approval of these changes by accreditors, specialty and institutional, appears to be a major concern (I chose to not use the word “roadblock” since few institutions have applied for accreditor approval). Third, none of the participating institutions has conducted marketing research regarding the receptivity of the degree to prospective students. All of them assume that students will welcome the opportunity to complete a degree for less money in three years. All of them are glad that they have found a way to save their students money even though it means less revenue for their institution. Some expressed concerns regarding the receptivity of employers to a three-year bachelor’s degree, and those that utilize Industry Advisory Councils (IACs) for their degree reviews have begun to discuss the proposed changes with their IACs. At least one institution has already discussed the concept with graduate schools and received a positive reception.

I am a strong believer in the process of determining and evaluating learning outcomes for all degrees. I have no issues with institutions creating three-year bachelor’s degrees when the faculty have evaluated that the three-year degree provides the same outcomes as the four-year degree. It’s beyond time for colleges to look closely at outcomes and not “time in seat.” I hope more colleges consider evaluating the opportunities to reduce degree requirements, and I hope that accreditors fully evaluate the analysis conducted by their member institutions proposing these options.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence