American Culture

Three-year degrees save money but are costly in other ways

Four years of college seems an appropriate time for the leavening of the young. They arrive on campus in various states of glee, fear, confusion, and hope. Four years later, many, perhaps even most, walk confidently across a stage to receive a diploma from the college president. Society is thus assured that these young men and women are capable of wisely voting, serving on a jury, and holding down a job.

College is 120 credits: That’s eight semesters at 15 credits per semester, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. And it’s pricey: For the academic year just ended, public four-year colleges charged for tuition and fees, on average, $6,585 (up 6.4 percent from last year), and private four-year colleges cost $25,143 (up 5.9 percent from last year) for the same. Now add up to $10,000 for room and board. In a recession, that’s tough for many students and their families to afford.

Hence the recent surge in colleges touting three-year degrees. Save money, they promise. Get a head start on life, they say.

Don’t bet on it. Three-year degrees short-change both the student and society.

Colleges do not need to formally offer three-year degrees. An astute prospective student who studies the curriculum requirements of the universities she is considering can figure out how to finish in three years. A good academic adviser can help.

In my 13 years of advising journalism students, I’ve had only two finish their undergraduate degree in three years — and both stayed to complete their master’s degrees in a fourth year. I’ve had a few dozen finish in seven semesters instead of eight.

These students took advantage of Advanced Placement courses in high school for which they were awarded college credit. Generally, a student who shows up at my university as a journalism major with 15 to 18 credits from AP exams (and those have to be major-appropriate credits) may easily finish in seven semesters, saving nearly $20,000. Add in a few 18-credit semesters and summer school, and she’s out in six, saving nearly $40,000. (Another issue: Is AP exam credit truly the equivalent of a college course?)

So I drew up a three-year journalism degree program. Even assuming no incoming AP or college credit, a student could finish it in three years and two summers. Oh — she’ll have to fit in those 400 internship hours, too.

A three-year degree is a bad idea for all but the most focused and mature of incoming freshmen. However, as the cost of higher education climbs at two to three times the rate of inflation, more colleges are pitching it to potential students. But if those colleges assert that the three-year degree is of the same quality as the four-year degree, they’re misleading their market.

Cramming 120 credits into three years reduces the time necessary for that leavening of the young. A steady diet of 18 credits plus summer school reduces the time available for reflection and meditation on what’s been learned. And three-year students miss out on a helluva lotta fun. My dean tells freshmen at orientation: “If you don’t have fun in college, you’ve failed college. It’s all about wisely balancing academics and fun.”

Proponents of three-year degrees argue that students get a “head start.” On what? Life? That’s specious, given increased life expectancy. The work force?

How does a potential employer — or graduate school admissions board — distinguish between a three-year degree holder and a four-year graduate? GPAs may be the same. Holders of degrees with 120 credits will have a major and probably a minor.

But if the freshman arriving with AP and college credits stays a fourth year, perhaps she’ll walk across the stage with two majors and two minors or a dual degree (bachelor’s and master’s) or one major and three minors.

She will likely have earned 135 to 142 credits. She will be more marketable than others on the stage with her because she will be far more accomplished. She will be easily distinguished from her peers.

It’s frustrating to see colleges turning to three-year degrees as a marketing tool to maintain or increase enrollments by dangling a money-saving carrot in front of hard-pressed families. It’s not necessarily colleges’ fault; after all, other factors driving tuition and fee increases are outside their control.

The American value system so far has not viewed reducing college costs as a principal route to economic stability (or national security). At all levels of education — primary, secondary, post-secondary — a national consensus has failed to emerge that places bailing out a flawed educational system on par with bailing out General Motors.

19 replies »

  1. Let me think of a few classes that I could have done without. Mind you I have a A.S, B.S, and M.A. My majors weren’t very math oriented except for a couple audio physics classes, mostly communication, media type stuff and generally heavy on theory.

    2 phys ed classes (bowling and racket ball), interpersonal communications, 2 biology classes, 2 American history classes, 1 geography class, any intro computer class (lucky for me later on I could test out of these), and about half of the “theory” classes. Now I understand that we need to learn “theory” but I can say right now that 100% of the theory classes I’ve taken could have been condensed into 2 weeks.

    Now in general I love history, geography, computers, and sports. These classes I did well in but I felt they were a complete waste of my time. I do/study these things for fun, I don’t need to pay for them. Bio I had no use for, and I generally just hate math but understand the need. I have to say that most of my classes and the books for that matter were redundant. I could have cut about 5 mass comm classes out.

    My problem was that I graduated college wanting to take more of the advanced classes in my major. For example at MTSU I studied recording, I got to take a total of about 6 classes where I physically could touch the gear and use the studio. The problem was that they offered about 4 times that amount. I was forced to take redundant lower level classes to fill my major instead of actually doing something that would have made me better at what I actually wanted to do. Sure there are colleges that are not accreted that I could have gone to, but then I wouldn’t of had a “Real Degree”.

    I understand trying to build a well rounded person, but what I’ve found more and more when I was looking for a job is that employers aren’t really looking for a well rounded person. They want people who are specialized in a few things, and they need to be great at them.

    I can say that the majority of my friends who went to a trade school, got in a union trade, or didn’t go to school at all, all make way more money than me. These people all work for someone, I’m excluding any entrepreneurs. Off the top of my head I can think of 10 of my closest friends that make at least 50k more than me. About 1/3 of those people’s jobs I wouldn’t touch for any money, but the other 2/3’ds I’d take in a heart beat, and I actually really love my job. All I did was go to college like everyone told me to do.

    My wife and I combined education is worth more than our house. If Insurance is the biggest scam then I’m really starting to believe college is a very close second.

  2. Darrell:

    Interesting take. A few comments:

    1. Maybe your theory classes could have been done in two weeks, but not mine. For instance, I have no idea how I could have absorbed the 14 books of philosophy I had to read in my intro political theory class, much less write the two papers and take the mid-term and final. That class made me a better thinker all by itself, and that was before my cultural anthro class, intellectual history of modern Europe class (grad level), etc. My history classes were deep dives even at the 100 or 200 level, and required independent research and lengthy papers. I came out of all this a much better and much more creative thinker than I went in.

    2. Your experience with pay is very at odds with that in most of the US. College grads tend to earn much more than non-college grads. Heck, when I think about the execs I’ve known, A $550,000 a year VP had a degree in philosophy, a $275,000 a year consultant a degree in anthropology, a multi-million dollar entrepreneur a degree is psych, etc. My experience is that, once you’ve reached the first rung of the corporate ladder in practically any department, your ability to advance is limited only by your ability to think creatively and work hard.

    3. My professors graded me down substantially if I didn’t write and think (and the two are closely linked) very, very well. For that reason, alone, my education was worth the money.

    4. Based on my conversations with students and professors, I’m more convinced than ever that what goes on in the classroom varies SUBSTANTIALLY from one college to another. The quality of the instruction and where the bar is set tends to depend heavily on the skills the average student brings to the classroom, which means that theory classes at Harvard are likely to be very different from theory classes at Central Wyoming Normal School.

    5. It’s true that certain artisan-like jobs pay more right out of training than many jobs in corporations that require non-specific, liberal-arts-like skills. It’s also true that those jobs tend to hit pay maximums pretty quickly and be dead ends, and the sky’s the limit for the other jobs.

    6. The communication degree is problematic. I’ve worked in many communication departments, and almost no one had a communications degree. In addition, those we interviewed and/or hired with communications degrees tended not to do well. I think there may be something wrong with the curricula across a broad array of colleges.


    On the AP — It really depends on both the high school and the college in question. I know someone right now who finds college to be ridiculously easy — in fact a waste of time the way Darrell portrays it — who also says that her high school AP courses were often insanely hard. On the other hand, some elite colleges don’t accept AP credits at all, and some high schools find that their students complain that the regular courses were harder than their college courses.

  3. Holy crap. I thought the average time in school for engineering was 5 years. I have no freaking idea how you would do it in three. I did it in six and it kicked my ass. And I didn’t have any fun until grad school. :-/ OK, I was also running track, but still.

  4. Ubertramp:

    Well, people differ that way. Will Toor, the former mayor of Boulder, was getting his graduate physics degree at Stanford when he was 16, I believe. For mortals like me, though, doing an engineering degree in three would probably put me six feet under.

  5. I believe that much of it depends on what a student is trying to get from the education…

    Darrell’s right that there’s a whole bunch of bullshit required of students. A phys ed requirement at university seems, well, like it’s really just high school after all.

    As for the AP exams that Denny asked about. Yes, those should get the credits that they earn. For the most part they place students out of 100 and 200 level classes. Chances are that the HS classes leading to taking the tests were better (smaller classes, etc.) than the 100 level university equivalent. Those tests are not easy. If i remember correctly, students only get the credits for a score of 5 (maybe 4 out of 5 too). Assuming you got a 5 on the AP English test, a 100 level English course is a waste of time/automatic 4.0.

    Lots of countries do three year degrees (and many more have automatic enrollment in 5 year, master programs). On the other hand, those countries generally expect something from high school students too.

    • At the risk of sounding overly bitchy, the prospects for a three-year college program would be brighter if students didn’t arrive on campus already four years behind.

      Just saying….

  6. I guess it all depends on the degree, and of course where you live.

    I would never be an engineer no matter how hard I worked. However that doesn’t actually mean I’m a complete waste.

    I live In Buffalo, my house is about 90k, taxes are high, and jobs are really competitive, our student loans are about 150k combined, plus I got a kid. I love my job and wouldn’t leave. My wife is a substitute teacher in special education, and is making about 75 bones (pre tax) a day. If she eventually lands a job she will do pretty damn good. Not 500k, but a comfortable livable wage in Buffalo NY. My brother who is a union electrician, and his wife who is a teacher make about 150k a year total. They have a very comfortable life, enough to save, take a vacation, and have a few toys like a 69 Chevelle. That’s all I really want. I admit my communication media arts associates may not be to impressive, and my undergrad and masters may not be the norm. However I managed to have some success working in my field of study (which is rare).

    I must also admit that I may not be the hardest worker in the classroom, but every place I’ve worked I’ve been considered an extremely valuable asset and have always moved up. I was blessed/cursed with the opportunity to work at a pretty young age (12) and I learned a lot about work ethic and business. I’m actually really not too worried about my future employment as much as I am about my wife’s. I don’t want to move, but my wife is pretty much dead set on being a teacher. Which means I’d work just about anywhere to make some cash if she got a job out of state. The main issue is that NY state pay their teachers pretty well, and other states don’t.

    With regards to #4. I wouldn’t be sold on brand names, we’ve all worked with people who tout their ivy league education, they generally tend to not work too long. I’ve worked with 3 people who wouldn’t stop bragging about their education at Harvard, Yale, and Brown educations, they all were fired before a year went by. Plus those schools are pretty much a 90%-10% mix of old money and brains. Expensive colleges are like a Jackson Pollock painting. Basically it took one rich person to buy it, then all their friends bought one. Pretty soon you have a bunch of douches buying crap and telling you how awesome it is.

    If we’re throwing big college names around then let me brag. I did go to a small community college in Niagara County, NCCC. Niagara County Community College. Or as we call it UCLA, University Closest to Lockport Area. Either way you must not judge small colleges. Especially community colleges where the professors tend to be on semi retirement, or fresh out of a PHD program. My first semester I had a semi retired professor who used to teach at Stanford. Needless to say my English 101 class wasn’t that easy. I also had another former Colombia prof, and Cuse prof. Not exactly a walk in the park either.

    Maybe I’m a little bitter, but being a Gen X’er I was told that I HAD to go to college, so I did. My pops was a mailman and my mom worked odd jobs, I swore I wouldn’t get stuck in their trap. What’s funny is that I’m worse off. It could be where I live (Buffalo) or maybe I’m just not as great as I think. I will say that I actually have a job that is in my field of study (Internet Advertising) and I absolutely love it. My issue is that I just want enough money to pay off some bills and maybe go on a vacation once a year. That’s really it, I’m not asking for much, and not because it’s owed, but because it was earned.

    Usually at this time someone brings out the “Greatest Generation” card, well I really get annoyed when people talk about the “Greatest Generation” and how hard they worked. Everyone seems to forget that hard work doesn’t necessarily involve breaking a sweat. I had to work 40+ hours (which actually involved sweat), go to class, intern, do homework, and do labs for my classes. I remember my Grandma saying that she had to work 12 hour days, we all had a good laugh.

  7. Darrell:

    Your experience with graduates from elite schools is very much at odds with mine. Kids who get into elite schools (other than those from extremely wealthy, donor families) generally have two attributes: they are very, very smart and they work very, very hard. Shoot, the Ivy League Admissions Index (AI) is set up so that it’s very difficult to get into many of those schools unless you are in the top 5 or so in your high school class with an average of 740 or 750 on all the SAT tests. That’s nosebleed territory, that is.

    There’s a reason the major law firms, consulting firms, and financial firms recruit so heavily from elite schools, and it’s not because the kids coming from those schools tend to be bad employees.

    Generally, the smartness and work ethic roll over into these kids’ work lives. I’ve been in a number of consulting firms that hire mostly kids from elite colleges, and it’s hard to even recall one who didn’t work hard as hell. I had to fire one from Notre Dame, but that’s the only one. She just wasn’t quite quick enough to manage the learning curve. Not her fault, and I felt badly about it.

    Anyway, as I said, I’ve talked to extremely bright kids in universities with average students, and the extremely bright kids are bored out of their skulls — and getting As with no effort. I’ve also talked extensively to professors in schools with average kids, and they tell me straight out that they dumb their classes down so that the average kid can cut it. I highly doubt that classrooms are consistent from one school to another.

    As for your pay and your family’s financial situation, may I suggest that you are living in one of the most economically depressed areas in the country, and that the two of you have chosen jobs that may not be the highest paying ones around? There’s nothing wrong with that. Choose the career you love, I always say. But don’t extrapolate your experience to everyone. For instance, as a communicator, if you get a job at a major consulting firm, and if you can cut it there, you will easily earn $200k or more by mid-career. My wife is an educational consultant, and she earns much, more more than your wife. So, if your wife were to seek employment in my wife’s field, she would earn maybe 8 to10 times as much as she’s earning now. A college degree doesn’t give you high pay for just any job. You have to use the degree to leverage yourself into a high-paying one.

    Sure, electricians can earn $70,000 or more with overtime. And that’s a good thing, but they’re never going to go much higher than that in real dollars, and their work tends to be highly dependent on building activity where they live. Hey, my father ended up as an ironworker and made pretty good money, but when his body was used up, so was his ability to work, and when the work ran out and the economy turned sour, times could be pretty hard.

    You didn’t HAVE to go to college, Darrell, and I’m sorry your parents told you that you did have to go, but I can assure you that your upside potential, should you choose to exploit it, is much higher than that of your friends who didn’t attend college.

    As for your college experience …. well … as I said, it varies greatly from mine, and I suspect the quality of the student body where you went to school has a lot to do with that.

  8. I don’t expect to make 500k, and I never did. I think my main point is that in this. The area I live, with it’s quality of living (which i deem pretty damn fine despite it’s national rep) I can live a comfortable life with the wages of someone who has far less education then myself.

    My fault for getting off track of the original post.

  9. Darrell:

    I thought you were saying that a college degree wasn’t worth the money because of your personal experience. At least, that’s what I read into what you were saying. I agree that it’s possible to make a decent living as an artisan, and one doesn’t need a college degree to become an artisan.

  10. Hell, yeah, Slammy. Hell, yeah. (And those AP kids are the ones who enter university not four years behind.)

    And what this discussion is becoming is one about the demise of the American middle class; the pursuit of money above all else; and the idea that your career should define your life.

    If i had a quarter for every seriously stupid, rich-successful-degree draped person i’ve ever met i’d be as rich as those stupid people. You know, the ones who look at a flat tire as if the lunar lander is trapped on the far side of the moon. The ones who couldn’t feed themselves if their life depended on it or drive a nail. But it’s ok because they have money, so they pay someone to do the things that they cannot do and look down on those people at the same time.

    Why yes i am a militant member of the House that Peterbilt.

    Now look at every major problem we’re facing. Looks they were caused by a bunch of fucks with Ivy League degrees to me…which is not to say that every Ivy League degree is a fuck, only that an Ivy League degree does not guarantee applied intelligence or morals/wisdom.

    I remember 2001. I worked in a printing factory, on the bindery floor and transitioning to “higher” duties (you know smart and upwardly mobile). Most of the factory rats saw today’s situation in Afghanistan pretty clearly…might have helped that not a few of them actually spent time in Vietnam. It was the educated, successful ones who went blathering on about clashes of civilization and other such bullshit…might have been that most of them avoided Vietnam.

    Tell me which group was smarter.

    Now America has been living the delusion of education>career>income for a goodly number of decades at this point. Does anyone think that there might be a connection between that utterly hollow lifeway and the massive quantities of anti-depressants prescribed? How about a connection between parents who live their work and their children who shoot up schools?

    We look down on the blue collar (and a great many who profess to respect it don’t really, their elitism is just a little more snide). Getting paid a decent wage to build the stupid automotive status symbols for the educated elite is a bad thing in this country; having a healthy portfolio made on the losses of someone else is a good thing…it shows how smart and educated you are.

    I certainly find it funny that the most “successful” people are the people who generally don’t produce anything tangible or particularly useful. But they have enough money to buy a cheaply built stick house and not enough actual brains to see that they’re buying a house that won’t last through its first 30 year mortgage…but my, look at the cathedral ceilings…we’re moving on up, honey.

    If only Tyler Durden wasn’t fictional…

  11. JS: I would say a majority of my college experience was not worth it. Lets face it colleges are in the money making business. I got a degree so I could get a better paying job, not to be a millionaire. I would also say that the smartest people I encountered in college were actually at my community college. In fact the smartest people I’ve ever met in life actually have little to no college experience.

  12. The above comments touch upon the issues pretty well. However, colleges and universities are BUSINESSES. That’s what they’ve become. They’re no longer mainly concerned with educating their students–oh, many individual professors and instructors are very concerned with that, but the Administration? No. They’re not. I’ve only been teaching on the college level for about ten years. In that time, I’ve seen two presidents and provosts focus on increasing enrollment and lowering overhead in order to make a profit. How do they do that? Many ways. One sure way is to pull back on annual “cost of living salary increases” for non-tenured faculty and staff. On top of that, they’ll “outsource” classes–I mean, come on, why do the administrators push online, dual-credit, and televised courses so much? I’ll take a student in my classroom every day, reading, discussing, writing, over just about any student online. AP courses are fine. However, dual-credit courses are not. And universities push dual-credit composition courses very hard and tout them as a way for parents to save money and a student to get a head start on college. The problem is, dual-credit comp courses are another way to outsource–high school teachers teaching college credit classes. My experience has been that when a freshman comes into my Comp II class after taking a Comp I class in high school, he or she is behind, not ahead of the others. But dual-credit makes money for the university–they don’t have to pay an instructor for the class, the high school one or the college one, yet they get tuition money for it and split it with the county school board.

    And then there are the students…unfortunately, most want to breeze through and get a degree and move on. Many see college Gen Ed classes as unnecessary and feel they should just be able to declare a major and take only those classes. And based on what I’ve heard from at least one administrator, that would open up seats for others to enroll.

    It’s strange how it’s changed in ten years. It used to be that they’d keep you in college for as long as possible to milk you of all your money and put you further in debt. Maybe they figured out less is more.

    • I took AP English and AP Calculus, and neither prepared me for what I faced in college (at a public school, not a supposedly “elite” institution). I think that having seen calculus before being thrown into it helped a huge amount with the college class, but the AP English wasn’t even accepted as a composition class – I got AHS general ed credit for it instead.

      Being able to pass the AP tests doesn’t mean you can perform at college level. It may mean that, but when I went through undergrad, it wasn’t even close to an indicator of success. I was friends with a few people who passed enough AP classes that they tested out of nearly all their freshman classes, and some of them did very well. Others burned out and quit before their junior year.

      Three year plans may work for some smart, highly motivated students, but most students would be better served by slowing down, not speeding up. There’s a hell of a lot more to college than blazing through in order to get your diploma and start earning money. This is especially true for students in the technical disciplines (like mine, electrical engineering), where nearly ever credit every semester is rigidly defined. Just as students in non-science or technical majors really need to take science and math classes (Eat your veggies, dammit!) beyond “Astronomy for Dummies,” engineers and scientists desperately need to take non-technical/science classes to make sure they can interact with the world outside their labs and cubicles.

      There are times when I wish I could have taken 5 years to get my degree instead of 4, slowed down, and taken more “general” classes like philosophy, religious studies, psychology, and so on. Especially psychology. I’ve had to learn the hard way how to interact with people, and a couple of classes might have reduced the pain of the process somewhat.

      • “Being able to pass the AP tests doesn’t mean you can perform at college level.”

        Nope. These days it probably means that you’re on a par with most of the top-tier students your age, but our standards have slipped SO FAR in the last 20-30 years. Today’s 90th percentile may have been 60th percentile in 1980.

  13. I finished my anthropology BA degree in 7 semesters. I came in having tested out of English/writing classes, some math, and foreign language (all due to AP classes).

    I also took band every fall (2 credits each) and the occasional spring (for a total of maybe 4-5 credits?) Also, I switched my major (from engineering) during my first semester. If I hadn’t done those (and thus had time for more classes), I likely could have finished in three years. But I would have had a lot less fun.

  14. Let’s not lose track of the two central issues higher education faces:
    1. Figuring out how to pay for college.
    2. Trying to forecast whether there will be jobs in your field before committing to being educated in it.

  15. Wish I’d seen this when it was posted…

    I did my degree in three years and I have such mixed feelings about it. I entered with 24 college credit earned through a bridge program with a community college. I switched majors a number of times, took courses I didn’t need, and graduated with a major, a minor and a bunch of electives that hadn’t fit in either program. I only took one summer class. There are days I’m really glad I did what I did — I went right to grad school and after graduating fell into a job that is exactly what I want to be doing. But then, I think about what I *could* have done if I stayed. I gave up my dual-major and my honors program to get out and I took a lot of independent studies because the courses I needed weren’t being offered. So, on one had I had a lot of great one-on-one interactions with professors doing some stuff that was probably more advanced and faster-paced than we would have in a group, but on the other I missed out on classroom discussion which I’ve come to appreciate more than I did as a student (six of my twelve courses my senior year were independent studies).

    But, I had to beg, arrange, rearrange, and jump through a lot of hoops to get it together. I think offering it up as a ‘save money, get done faster!’ program that you can just step into is simply irresponsible. I guess it depends on what you see ‘the ends’ of a college education being – a degree or an education. In terms of education, I don’t think my five years of school post-high school was anywhere near enough, even though I have the degrees. You can get a degree in three years, but can you get a substantial education?