US lawmakers encouraging three-year degree experiments

On a bipartisan basis, members of Congress see value in federal government tweaking rules to allow and encourage quicker pathways

June 27, 2023
Two people ride a zipline in New York City to illustrate US lawmakers encouraging three-year degree experiments
Source: Getty images

US universities are getting encouragement from federal policymakers to test out three-year bachelor’s degrees, seeing them as a more efficient model, especially for lower-income students.

A group of about a dozen institutions has begun a series of experiments with the idea, with some planning to award degrees with fewer than the standard 120 credits, and others to keep the 120 level but offer credit for job-based learning.

Such ideas have long been tried at various points in the history of US higher education. But after largely existing on the margins, constrained by real or feared regulatory limits, institutions in the College-in-3 Initiative are getting bipartisan encouragement to create models that would get wide use.

A lead organiser of the effort is Lori Carrell, chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Rochester, who recently outlined the initiative to lawmakers in Washington and came away feeling strong political support at a time of rising college costs.

The key, Dr Carrell said afterwards, remained the ability of colleges using shorter timetables to be able to demonstrate the value.

“The retention and completion have to be better than what we have now with the four-year degree,” she said.

The idea of 120 credits – 15 per semester for four years – goes back more than a century in the US. Universities have held to it closely since then, reinforced by accrediting agencies, which in turn help to define eligibility for federal student financial aid.

Institutions technically have some freedom to deviate from that standard, but many practical considerations make that difficult, especially concerning lower-income students. The main federal student subsidy, the Pell grant, does allow its use for summer classes. But in practice, Dr Carrell said, many institutional aid officers hesitate, wary of students exhausting their overall Pell eligibility before they graduate.

Now lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have been pushing the US Department of Education to create clear authority for experiments around the three-year degree idea. They’re encouraged, said a spokeswoman for the Republican leadership of the House education committee, by the fact that multiple accrediting agencies were part of the advisory board for the College-in-3 experiment.

“If Congress reformed the accountability requirements for all institutions to place a greater emphasis on ensuring students and taxpayers are receiving a return on their education investment, it might also spur more institutions to consider innovative, cost-saving approaches, such as three-year degrees,” said the spokeswoman.

Two leading Democrat senators, Amy Klobuchar and Maggie Hassan, drafted authorisation language for such experimental authority that is expected to be part of next year’s federal budget measure.

Dr Carrell’s year-old College-in-3 initiative has members dominated by fellow regional publics, such as Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Portland State University, Slippery Rock University, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The group also has a few private members, including Merrimack College, Utica College and Northwood University.

In some of the three-year experiments, students are being set up with outside jobs, then evaluated and given academic credit for skills they learned in that environment. In others, such as those awarding degrees for fewer than 120 credits, the changes involve significant overhauls, such as creating block-schedule style intensive courses where professors from more than one discipline may contribute, with the idea that students are gaining more than one set of competencies at the same time.

Dr Carrell said she couldn’t predict how widely three-year degrees would be adopted by students, but said she expected that most US universities would have it as an option within a decade.

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Reader's comments (1)

Neither Congress nor Basken playing attention to employers who want well-prepared graduates not 3 yr quickies. Of course US univs never paid attention to two tracks common in UK, Canada, Australia, etc." 3 yr general degrees, 4 yr honors degrees And so much more