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Three Year Bachelor's Degree Programs: Are They For Everyone?

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The costs associated with attending college are continually on the rise, which means that “How can I save money while going to school?” is a frequently-asked question among college students. Applying for scholarships, choosing public universities over private schools, or starting out at community colleges with lower tuition rates are three common solutions, but other alternatives are out there. More and more young people have decided to push themselves a bit harder in order to earn their degree in three years instead of the typical four.

Graduating from college in three years isn’t a new concept. In fact, earning undergraduate degrees in three years is actually normal in Europe, and some high-achieving students in the United States have been able to graduate in three years thanks to Advanced Placement or dual enrollment credits earned in high school anyway.

I have a friend who is now a veterinarian, and she had another unique situation during college – she earned her doctorate without ever getting a Bachelor’s degree. My friend was such a good student that she was accepted into vet school during her junior year of undergraduate studies, so she was able to skip her senior year and go straight to grad school without earning her first degree.

Students are looking for ways to get through college without accumulating an additional year of debt, and the trend may be catching on. More and more institutions in the United States are adding additional online classes during summer and winter breaks which can be completed at the student’s convenience, allowing them to have a job during their break as usual. A growing number of schools have even created three-year degree programs.

Hartwick College, a small liberal arts school in New York, offers a three-year degree program in which students take 18 credits in the fall, 4 credits during a January term, and 18 credits in the spring. This agenda still leaves students with free summers to be employed or participate in internships. Students enrolled in the three-rear program will pay the same tuition for 40 credits a year as students in the school’s traditional four year-program enrolled for 30 credits a year pay, saving over $40,000 in tuition and fees by graduating one year earlier than other students.

Hartwick’s three-year program does have stipulations based on GPA and area of study. Hartwick’s president explained that some academic programs, such as music education, simply cannot be completed in three years. I can agree with that statement from personal experience because my Bachelor’s degree is in music education. Despite taking eighteen credit hours per semester and two terms of summer school, it took me an extra semester to complete my degree. I graduated in December instead of May.

Hartwick’s program, which began in 2009, is still relatively new, making it difficult to judge its success rate. Judson College in Alabama, Manchester College in Indiana, and Seattle University are also schools with some type of official three-year degree program, but a speedy race to graduation is not for everyone. Upper Iowa University recently offered the option to earn a degree in three years a few years ago, and just five students took advantage of the opportunity. All five wound up staying in college for four years after all, and nobody has signed up since.

Upper Iowa University’s vice president for enrollment believes that a three-year degree "would be attractive to someone who knows right now what they want to do with the rest of their lives” but most young people aren’t quite sure and choose to stay in school an additional year, despite racking up another year of debt.

If you’re literally having the best time of your life, going to college for four years may very well be worth it in your opinion. Many students attend public universities that have much lower tuition rates than Hartwick’s, and that “normal” fourth year wouldn’t cost them nearly as much. As with anything else in life, graduating from college in three years or four years (or five) is a personal decision.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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Shennan over 8 years ago Shennan

If I could get my head on straight and focus better, that 3 year bachelors degree could be for me.

Cristina Elizabeth over 8 years ago Cristina Elizabeth

Grace College in Winona Lake, IN just announced a 3-year accelerated program. With it they’re introducing a new curricular model that has students taking 2-3 course in two 8-week sessions, and a heavier emphasis on contextual experiences and applied learning, such as internships, study abroad, student teaching, research fellowships, and student leadership positions. They’re also offering students the opportunity to earn a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in four years, maintaining regular financial aid throughout all four years. I graduated from Grace and wish that had been an option when I attended, especially the 8-week sessions, I feel like that would be a much better learning situation for me, concentrating on fewer courses over a shorter amount of time.