TIME Higher Education

Here’s How Many Students Could Save $50,000 on College—But Aren’t

The cost of not getting a college degree is rising, new study finds
The cost of not getting a college degree is rising, new study finds Getty Images

More colleges are allowing students to finish up their four-year degrees in just three years. But only a tiny percentage of students are taking advantage.

In 2012, Wesleyan University, an elite private college in Connecticut, became the highest-profile institution to actively promote an accelerated degree program, in which students could finish up college and get out into the “real world” after as little as three years of higher education. At the time, Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth wrote a guest op-ed for the Washington Post explaining that years prior, he had graduated from Wesleyan in three years, and he felt the benefits of such an option were enormous—among other things, he saved his family around $6,000, which was the cost of a year’s tuition when he was a student in the 1970s.

Because of a pricing model he described as “unsustainable,” Roth wrote that Wesleyan would immediately spread the word that the school’s current students could likewise finish up in three years, if they wanted:

The three-year option isn’t for everyone, but for those students who are prepared to develop their majors a little sooner, shorten their vacations by participating in summer sessions, and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities on campus, this more economical BA might be of genuine interest. In our case, allowing for some summer expenses, families would still save about 20 percent from the total bill for an undergraduate degree. At many private schools that would be around $50,000!

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Over the weekend, the Boston Globe published a story about three-year degree options at Wesleyan and other schools. Roth is still a big fan of the idea, agreeing with the words of a previous Wesleyan president, who told students, “If you look back at your years at Wesleyan and say those were the best four years of your life, we failed you.”

Roth told the Globe that students who are ready to move on after three years of college should do so. “You shouldn’t stay here because this is your time to screw around and have a great time and then it’s going to be bad,” he said. “These should be the years that launch you into the world in a better way.”

The idea makes sense to many students who are seeking the most bang for their buck, and who are terrified with taking on crippling levels of college loans. So it’s understandable that the concept of a three-year degree is increasingly mentioned as a money-saving tactic for college students and their families. And yet very few students are actually graduating three years after starting college.

The Globe pointed to a Wesleyan dean’s estimate, forecasting that only a half-dozen or so of its students will earn their degrees via the three-year route next spring. Why so few? And why aren’t more students around the country jumping on what appears to be a quick, straightforward strategy for trimming college costs?

First off, it’s not necessarily easy to compile enough credits to graduate in three years. For majors such as nursing and engineering, which typically require extensive labs or clinical hours, earning a degree in three years is virtually impossible and often isn’t even allowed. Degrees in seemingly less intensive majors sometimes can’t be earned in three years either. “In majors like the performing arts, those skills can’t be rushed into a three-year format,” said a dean at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, explaining why it wasn’t possible for students in that major to finish in three years, per a Bankrate.com post on the pros and cons of accelerated programs.

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Generally speaking, students in other majors must use AP credits earned in high school, and/or take summer sessions, and/or sign up for classes above and beyond the usual semester’s workload to try to finish up in three years. Not all students are up for the challenge. Heck, nationwide, less than half of students are able to earn enough credits to graduate in four years, let alone three.

What’s more, the majority of American colleges simply do not offer students the opportunity to graduate in three years. According to data cited in the Globe story, since 2009 only 19 private, nonprofit colleges have introduced three-year degree programs. More colleges are expected to get on board with the concept in the future, but the institutional embrace of the three-year degree will proceed slowly, and may not ever happen on a widespread level for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it obviously trims tuition and fees collected by colleges.

Colleges say that students should be extremely cautious in their pursuit of an accelerated degree. By speeding along through college, students increase the chances that they could pick the wrong major because they’re so hell-bent on graduating. They could also be shortchanged, the argument goes, on developing all-important life skills students are supposed to hone in college, such as critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving.

Certainly, another factor holding back the three-year degree from becoming a larger trend is some level of disinterest among students. Not all that many students are eager to kill themselves by overloading on courses each semester. They may rather prefer to squeeze every moment of fun they can out of college—to, in fact, “screw around and have a great time” with their friends, as Wesleyan’s Roth put it. Making oneself miserable by rushing through college makes particularly little sense when you’ll graduate into a fairly lackluster jobs market.

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Perhaps most telling, by some account students’ parents, rather than students themselves, seem more interested in the idea of saving money via a three-year degree. “I’ve had parents ask me about the three-year degree with the sort of energy that sometimes the students don’t possess themselves,” Mary Coleman, a dean at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Mass., said to the Globe.

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