During the recent state budget negotiations, the University of California promised to develop three-year degree programs on each campus for 10 of its top 15 majors by March 1, 2016. In addition, UC committed to enrolling 5 percent of students system-wide in an accelerated degree program by the summer of 2017. This is an intriguing goal that could benefit students and the state as a whole. Reaching it, however, would require overcoming significant obstacles.
The idea of accelerating the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree is not a new one. The three-year degree is especially likely to be touted as a way to boost the efficiency of public higher education during periods of declining state funding, growing enrollment, and rising tuition. It has been discussed in California and proposed in other states. Over the past two decades, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, Illinois, and Florida have all directed their public four-year institutions to develop three-year degree programs. But the idea has not been widely adopted.
The vast majority of three-year degree programs attempt to attract high-achieving recent high school graduates who have already earned some college credit—either through advanced placement exams or by taking classes at a community college while still in high school. In exchange for a commitment to attend school year-round, students are promised priority course enrollment, a structured degree path, and high-intensity advising. Condensing the bachelor’s degree allows a student to reduce costs while burnishing a resume and possibly getting a jump-start on graduate school. Florida State University has had some success with its Degree in Three program, which began in 2000. Enrollment has been limited, though it increased from 71 students to 123 out of a total of about 6,500 freshmen between 2007 and 2008. And 40 percent of students who initially enrolled in the program ended up staying for four years–after switching majors, studying abroad, or participating in student government.
It is easy to see the appeal of completing a bachelor’s degree in three years. For students it has the potential to produce net financial benefits. Three-year graduates are likely to reduce the overall cost of their education despite the additional costs of attending summer sessions and forgoing summer employment. And newly minted graduates can enter the job market one year earlier, presumably with greater earning potential. For schools, reducing the amount of time students take to get degrees allows them to enroll more students. As PPIC research has shown, California needs to produce more college graduates to meet the state’s future workforce demand.
But the challenges are greater than they appear at first glance. For one thing, not all students complete their degrees in four years. As of 2013, only 60 percent of first-time, full-time UC freshmen graduated in four years; nearly one in five took between four and five years to graduate. In other words, for a significant number of students, participation in a three-year program would mean shortening their time at UC by more than a year. Campuses would need to re-examine their course offerings to make sure there are enough seats in required classes to meet student demand. Equally important would be to ensure that the sequence of offerings allows students to take all of their classes in three years. These changes would involve shifting teaching assignments and/or adding new instructors.
Even if the institutional challenges can be met, a larger question looms: What is the demand for a three-year degree? The students most able to attend classes year-round are those with more resources and/or fewer work or family obligations. The most motivated may be out-of-state students, who pay the steepest tuition. But we know that many UC freshmen today who have sophomore standing, and could finish in three years, choose not to.
A successfully implemented three-year degree program is likely to have a small impact on capacity. But if UC were to pursue this effort more broadly, and if the time to degree could be shortened to four years for students who now need five years to complete their degrees, the impact on capacity would be greater.