While educators debate the wisdom of three-year college degrees, some ambitious students are going ahead and finishing their coursework in three years anyhow as a way to save thousands of dollars in tuition.
It takes discipline, they say, a clear study plan and, often, an armful of advanced placement credits from high school.
“I didn’t think it was worth it to pay another $40,000 to play with my friends for another year, cheer for a year, and write a thesis,” said Nina Xue, who earned a bachelors degree in history and French in three years this spring at Rice University, where she also found time to be a cheerleader.
Xue says she didn’t start college with a three-year plan, but did have a head start with 26 AP credits. She took more than 15 hours of classes during two semesters and studied abroad one summer for credit. At the start of her third year, she realized she had enough credits to graduate at the end of the year.
It was hard leaving friends behind, but “making my parents pay for another year of school would not have been fair,” says Xue, who plans to pursue a law degree and work in New York City next year.
Only 4.2 percent of U.S. undergraduates earned bachelor’s degrees in three years, according to the most recent statistics from the Education Department. The average student spends six years to get a degree at a public university and 5.3 years at a private institution, according to the College Board.
A handful of colleges have begun offering three-year degree programs, an idea trumpeted by Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former education secretary and college president, at the American Council of Education’s annual meeting in February. He called three-year degree programs the higher-education equivalent of a fuel efficient car.
But critics say shaving the fourth year off college could limit a student’s social experience and provide a narrower education.
“From a financial standpoint, particularly in these economic times, it’s a great deal,” said Roxie Catts, an academic adviser at the University of Arizona. But that would mean sacrificing some general education courses, she said “the things that get you out of your comfort zone and stick with you for life.”
Barbara Rupp, admissions director at the University of Missouri, added, “In some disciplines it would not be possible” to finish in three years. “Engineering, for example it is tough to graduate in four years much less three years.”
Another student at a four-year college who figured out how finish in three was Charles Jacobson, 20, who graduated this year in business at Skidmore College. He credits good planning and not AP courses. “Halfway through my freshman year, I had all my courses planned out,” Jacobson said.
He was motivated to get a business degree after a summer job with a pet store in high school. He recalls going to the Skidmore registrar’s office and posing the idea of a degree in three years.
“The first thing they asked me was, are you sure you want to do that? I said yes, and here is my plan.”
Jacobson also found time in college to work as a ski instructor and complete a summer internship with a financial planning firm. He said he needed help from the registrar’s office to pull off his plan, but he never had a problem registering for the right classes.
“I did have to take 8 a.m. classes, but that is no big deal,” he said.
Raphaelle Peinado of Rye, N.Y., a three-year graduate of McGill, said the tough job market has made her wonder whether she should have hung out in college for another year. “It is pretty daunting for students with a three-year degree to go into a very hostile work environment with little work experience,” she said.
On the positive side, she thinks finishing in three years may have helped her get into graduate school; she’ll be attending a masters program at the London School of Economics.
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