Some schools offer three-year degree programs, something UM leader is considering

Monday, December 21, 2009 | 5:14 p.m. CST; updated 8:48 p.m. CST, Monday, December 21, 2009

COLUMBIA — Gary Forsee, president of the University of Missouri System, recently raised the possibility of creating a three-year, “no-frills degree” as a way to make a college education more affordable. Forsee, who talked about the idea briefly at a town hall meeting, had no specifics.

Three-year degrees are more common at private schools but are also offered at some public institutions.

Although the three-year degrees require the typical 120 hours for graduation, students might go significantly faster. The savings — potentially in tens of thousands of dollars — come because students at those schools pay a flat, yearly tuition rate, excluding summers. Saving a year’s worth of room and board is also considered a benefit of graduating in three years.

For example, students at Bates College in Maine who complete the required number of credits to graduate in three years will pay one full year of tuition less than a student who takes the same amount of credits over four years.

This is not the case at most public universities, such as MU, which charge by the credit hour.

Ball State University, a public institution in Indiana, offers more than 30 three-year bachelor’s degrees through its “Degree in 3” program, which began in 2005.

“Students who are taking anywhere from 12 to 18 credit hours, they all get charged the same fee,” Brad Hostetler, associate director of admissions at the school, said. He added that off-campus education, such as online classes, is priced differently.

Several schools, such as Waldorf College in Iowa, market programs as saving students money because students spend what would have been their fourth year of college in the work force.

“The cost would be the same to the student unless you factor in that the fourth year they’re making money,” David Damm, professor and chairman of the communications department at Waldorf, said.

Lipscomb University in Nashville entices its students to enroll in a three-year degree program by offering a $1,000 voucher. Students can apply for the voucher during their fifth semester, including summer semesters, and must meet several academic requirements. The voucher can be used to pay tuition, room and board or study-abroad fees.

Schools that utilize these programs have students work closely with advisers to map out their schedules. For this reason, Hostetler said, Ball State students do not run into problems with classes filling up and closing.

At Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, students are required to work with a special Accelerated Degree Option adviser in addition to the student’s own academic adviser. Students don’t apply for the program until they complete their first semester, and the program is open only to “a small number of outstanding students,” according to the school’s Web site.

A disadvantage to three-year degree programs is that students are left with little time to study abroad or work summer jobs to pay for school.

Hartwick, a private liberal arts and sciences college in New York, hopes to combat this by not requiring students to take summer or online courses.

Instead, the school suggests students take 18 credit hours in the spring and fall semesters and four credit hours during a January term to graduate in three years. Hartwick began offering three-year degree programs for the first time this fall.

To be eligible for the program, Hartwick students must graduate high school with a 3.0 grade point average on a 4.0 scale.

In fact, high academic standards for admission into three-year programs are common at many schools.

Bates has been offering three-year degree programs since the 1960s, when it introduced a May-June semester so students could take additional classes. Despite the continued popularity of the extra term, few students take advantage of the three-year degree programs. Bryan McNulty, director of communications and media relations, said only one or two students a year graduate from them.

“We try and be as accessible as possible to all kinds of students," McNulty said. “It takes a very special student (to complete the program), somebody who is really very organized and also someone who is willing to give up some of the benefits of a regular four-year degree.”

Next fall, the University of Houston-Victoria in Victoria, Texas, will be the first public university in Texas to offer a three-year degree option. According to the Web site, students will still be required to graduate with 120 credit hours. Credits will be taken during a combination of eight- and 15-week sessions and require only one summer session, after the student’s first year.

Through the "Dn3" program, University of Houston-Victoria students will also be able to lock in a tuition rate, which will include study-abroad options. The first 150 freshmen who commit to the university for fall 2010 will be accepted.

Despite several schools’ efforts to start three-year degree programs, a few schools are beginning to phase theirs out. Waldorf, for example, has one remaining three-year degree program available to students. Damm said students are involved in too many extracurricular activities to finish their degree in three years.

“It wasn’t so much a problem when students were here to get a degree and graduate,” he said.

The communications department at Waldorf, which in 1993 began offering only a three-year degree option, graduated about 20 to 22 students each year, Damm said — a number that has dropped considerably in the past three years since a four-year option was reintroduced. Students started to “vote with their feet,” and class size became an issue, prompting the department to consider dropping the program.

Additionally, Upper Iowa University started offering students a three-year degree option about five years ago but has seen only five sign up and none graduate from the program, as reported by The New York Times.

According to a Rhode Island General Assembly news release, the state’s legislature passed "The Rhode Island Bachelor’s Degree in Three Program Act," which would grant all students attending both state schools to have the option of finishing a degree in three years. If approved by the governor, the program will be in effect starting in the fall 2010 semester.

And in February, former U.S. Secretary of Education and current Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., spoke at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting, encouraging college presidents from across the country to offer three-year degrees.

“A three-year college degree is not for every student, just as a hybrid car is not for every driver,” Alexander said at an event in April to mark the start of the three-year degree program at Lipscomb in Nashville.

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Sarah Standpoor December 21, 2009 | 8:31 p.m.

I don't really get the point of offering a "three-year degree." I earned my Bachelor's in three years from Miami University through AP credit, full semesters, and summer classes. I know several of my classmates from high school and college to have done the same thing. What's the difference between students taking the initiative to graduate early and schools offering a "three year degree?" It seems like the latter would just cost more in terms of promotion and advising.

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Naomi Parsons April 4, 2010 | 10:02 p.m.

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