The growing appeal of a three-year degree

November 06, 2014

CBS News

In a trend that began during the depths of the Great Recession, some students who needed to get a four-degree without a four-year degree’s cost, started trying to complete their courses in three years. But even as the U.S. economy is leaving that devastating slump slowly behind it, that trend is apparently hanging on — and perhaps gaining some momentum. About two dozen private U.S. colleges now offer three-year degree programs.

The financial advantages of a three-year program seem obvious. College costs continue to rise, with the median cost of a year’s tuition and fees for undergraduate study at both public and private, nonprofit, four-year institutions currently stands at just over $11,000, according to the College Board.

Add onto that a variety of additional costs, such as interest on student loans, and the idea of three-year college program sounds financially intriguing.

But it may not be for everyone. Karen Gross, president of Southern Vermont College, believes that academically, a lot of college students need those four years.

“Many students come into college with certain academic deficiencies,” she told “There’s a fair amount of work that has to be done just to catch them up. There are a subgroup of students from elite high schools for whom a three-year degree would be just fine. But that’s a very small percentage.”

Brent Chrite, dean of the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, said three-year degrees can work for students who have the discipline, motivation and maturity needed for an accelerated program. But that group probably reflects a small part of the overall student population.

“If you look, for example, at four-, five- and six-year matriculation rates as they stand, they’re already exceedingly low,” he told CBS MoneyWatch. “Most students don’t graduate in four years. Most take five to six years to graduate.”

Chrite acknowledges that the popularity of three-year programs is another indication that the overall higher education system is outmoded and needs change.

“When you look at demographic trends, when you look at technological platforms, when you look at the rising cost of tuition, the costs of higher education have far exceeded … over the last 20 years, the costs of any other industry, by orders of magnitude in this country,” he noted.

“And at some point, if we don’t wish to price people out of the market,” he added, “we have to think differently about how we deliver our programs.”

Chrite pointed to the rise of online learning, for-profit universities and other higher-education programs that cater to a student’s specific needs and “flexibilities, or lack thereof” as indicators of how dramatically and rapidly the concept of higher ed is changing.

“Many traditional institutions have failed to not only curb their costs, but have failed to offer unique and differentiated platforms for students to access,” he said.

“At end of the day, it really is about expanding access to what we do,” said Chrite. “And those who can think more creatively about providing opportunities for students to be the beneficiaries of our work–those are the institutions that are going to be around for the next 45 to 50 years.”