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Why Not More Three-Year College Degrees?

Accelerated programs mean more productive graduates and less student debt.
University Business, Aug 2004

Why do so few American colleges and universities offer three-year bachelor's degrees?

This option, which has a long history in Britain, is almost unknown here. One would think, with the cost of education rising, that the U.S. market would respond with accelerated degree programs to enable students to graduate more quickly with less student-loan debt, and a chance to go on a payroll a full year earlier.

Yet among approximately 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, fewer than 20 offer three-year bachelor's degree options. Among them, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (, are Bates College (ME), Valparaiso University (IN), Waldorf College (IA), Upper Iowa University, and a few others.

Add Green Mountain College (VT) to the list. Our first class of three-year bachelor's degree earners graduated in June. These newest alumni and alumnae are graduates of our Resort Management Program offered in cooperation with Killington Resort, the largest ski area in the East.

American higher education has bought too much into a "one size fits all" notion of a bachelor's degree education.

At a time when fewer than half of the students attending public universities in the United States graduate in five years, these dedicated students did it in three. While their annual tuition was slightly higher than the fee paid by our four-year students, they saved, on average, a total of $6,166 in tuition compared to those graduating in four years. In addition, they received healthy stipends for their co-op work on site, earning nearly $12,000 over their three years.

And those who plan to go directly into the work force have good jobs waiting for them, largely because of the required paid experience each year at Killington or other resorts. These students were able to demonstrate to potential employers what they could do, and that chance led to full-time employment opportunity.

As we've watched this first class closely, several things have become apparent to me. First, there is a market for three-year bachelor's degree programs and more colleges should recognize that. Not everyone needs to spend four, five, or six years on the bachelor's degree path.

So, why the emphasis on the four-year plan? The very fact that traditional four-year programs so infrequently result in students actually graduating in four years should be an indicator to the academy that there is nothing sacred about that number--at least from the viewpoint of students.

Second, three-year bachelor's degree programs are rigorous. Students who elect them should have strong time management skills and a commitment to their field of study.

Many fine students, of course, arrive at college without one or both of these characteristics and use their undergraduate years to develop them. Students in a three-year degree program, however, do not have that luxury. If they don't already have these traits, they must quickly seek out academic support or they'll stand a good chance of washing out.

Make no mistake, these students spend as much time on their education as do those on the traditional four-year path. The difference is that they gave up summers and many holiday breaks to graduate on time. And they were not short changed on the essentials of a liberal arts education.

Another observation: the three-year option is best in a field with a strong professional orientation. Close collaboration with the profession or craft is essential. Cooperative learning opportunities and on-site, meaningful internships must be available to all students in a three-year program or it is likely to struggle. We could not, for example, have offered our program without Killington's active and enthusiastic assistance.

Yet I fear that American higher education has bought too much into a "one size fits all" notion of a bachelor's degree education. Just as it has been sacredly assumed for decades, if not centuries, that the perfect length is four years and the perfect age is 18-22, it has been wrongly assumed that summers must be taken off and that courses must be limited to four or five per semester. Our three-year degree follows a trimester schedule with the winter study unit being devoted to a paid practical experience at Killington or elsewhere.

More schools should consider three-year degree programs where appropriate. There are students and parents who will welcome these options when they are well conceived and well delivered. And, as we have learned here at Green Mountain, businesses find the graduates of such programs more than competitive when it comes to hiring.

John F. Brennan is the president of Green Mountain College in Poultney, VT.

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