Think Tank Pushes for Three-Year Degree to Increase College Affordability

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As the cost of college continues to rise and higher education stakeholders are trying to address affordability issues, one think tank has proposed a way to cut tuition by 25 percent — making a three-year degree the new norm.

Despite their small, yet growing increase in popularity, three-year degree programs are not reaching the larger population of students they could be, according to a new report from the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). PPI senior fellow Paul Weinstein Jr. suggested that Congress incentivize more institutions to adopt and advertise three-year degrees by — after a transitional period — limiting federal student aid eligibility to students in these programs, and tying an institution's eligibility for federal aid to its success in reducing tuition fees through these programs.

Weinstein argued that while it is promising that at least 32 institutions have adopted three-year degree programs, they currently only interest a small number of students.

“The trend toward three-year bachelor's degrees is heartening … However, if one were to assign a grade to the current crop of three-year bachelor's degree programs, it would be an ‘F.’ That’s because, with the exception of a handful of schools such as Southern Oregon University, most are merely four-year programs squeezed into a three-year window. By design, these programs appeal only to a few, highly motivated students,” Weinstein wrote.  

Weinstein argued that significant changes need to be made to colleges’ curricula in order to establish the three-year degree as an attractive option for students, and eventually as the norm. Instead of attempting to fit a four-year course schedule into a smaller window of time, he recommended that institutions cut “unnecessary electives and general education requirements that attempt to teach students a little about everything,” and eliminate the prospect of students taking a semester abroad because “at today’s prices, a year of study abroad is an expensive way to discover what it’s like to live overseas.” He also proposed that students declare their majors before being admitted to college, with the option to change it after the first year, and that colleges relax certain restrictions that limit the ability for students to use Advanced Placement (AP) tests and International Baccalaureate (IB) work as college credit.

Weinstein wrote that it is not surprising that colleges and universities have been slow to embrace three-year degree programs because “change is not easily embraced by academia.”

And even when institutions have implemented three-year degree programs, he noted that some have not reduced the cost of tuition by 25 percent, and argued that Congress should only offer financial aid and grants to schools that meet this benchmark.

Weinstein first called for making three years the standard time to earn a degree in 2014, arguing in a policy brief that policymakers need to tackle the issue of college affordability because “there are cracks in the fiscal foundations of higher education, and they are growing wider.” He argued in this recent report that the issue has been exacerbated by the growth in online teaching, which some claim works as a way to keep costs down, when in reality many online courses are just as expensive as brick-and-mortar schools, as a recent survey by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies confirmed. Additionally, while massive open online courses (MOOCs) may be a cheaper option for students, Weinstein wrote that they “exacerbate the deficiencies in the online classroom” because students receive no feedback from their instructors and have difficulty grasping materials and passing courses.  

“Higher education is at a major crossroads. Skyrocketing tuition, the growth in online teaching, and the increase in graduate school attendance are all changing the way post-secondary education is delivered in America,” he wrote. “Colleges need to recognize and adapt to these changes to ensure a college degree is affordable, can be earned more efficiently, and provides graduates with the cognitive and social skills they need to excel in today’s highly competitive workplace.”


Publication Date: 5/15/2018

Karen D | 5/15/2018 11:23:03 AM

Many students who take four years or longer do so because they have to work full or part time to pay for school, living expenses, etc. How will making three year degree plans help in situations like that?

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