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Getting That Degree in Three Years

Yes, less cost, but less time to savor college


Brittany Devane came to BU fully expecting to spend four years. But after reviewing her numerous Advanced Placement credits from high school, she realized she had fulfilled most of the University’s liberal arts requirements, permitting her to plunge into her broadcast journalism major. Last summer, it hit her: she didn’t “have enough classes to really fill out the full schedule” through a fourth year. With a brother who’s a high school senior applying to college, she and her parents did the math. And so—

Devane (COM’12) will graduate this May after just three years, lopping 25 percent off the cost of her education. Money isn’t the main motive, as she has a 50 percent scholarship and is exiting early primarily to get a jump on her career. But her parents can use the savings for her brother’s schooling. “People think I’m crazy—I hear, ‘Why do you want to leave college?’” she says. “I don’t want to, but…I’m not going to make my parents pay for me to stay here and party for a year, taking classes that are just kind of fluff classes.”

Out-in-three is an option chosen by roughly 3 percent of BU undergraduates matriculating between 2004 and 2007, according to BU’s Institutional Research office. (Factor in students who finish in three years plus one semester, and the early graduates amount to between 7.5 percent and 9 percent of students.) Nationally, the most recent available statistics, for students who entered college in 2001, show that 4.2 percent graduated in three years, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. More American students have chosen the option since the financial crisis hit.

At BU, arranging an early arrivederci requires completing an application that the University reviews to ensure that a student is poised to have all the necessary credits in time. In the College of Arts & Sciences, “There was no particular major in which it seemed more or less likely” for students to manage three years, says Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences, adding that those who did had “some combination of AP credits, summer courses, and being very well organized.”

The idea of sprinting through three years first gained attention 20 years ago, when S. Frederick Starr, then president of Oberlin College, advocated it as a way to tether education’s dizzying cost for middle-class families. The idea never caught on, even at Oberlin. Then last year, two George Washington University professors, Gerald Kauvar and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (Hon.’99), a former president of the school, resurrected the case for “a degree in three” as a boon to colleges, which could admit more tuition-paying students in a four-period by graduating most students in three. Scores of European countries began instituting a three-year education two years ago, something Britain had offered for some time, although critics contend three years is insufficient time to confer the skills needed for the contemporary workforce.

Sapiro sees both sides. Three-year degrees allow you to pursue your next passion sooner, be it a career or graduate study, and cut your college costs, although she warns that those savings must be measured against summer tuition costs during your three years and the foregone income from summer jobs. The downsides: AP and summer courses are no match for a full academic year of study, and anyway, top-flight education “is more than a pile of credits or even seat time in classes,” she says. “A university education includes the larger experience of academic opportunities, such as study abroad, pursuing hands-on research with professors, and other enriching academic experiences.”

Critics contend that some students bloat their course loads with needless classes to fill out four years; Sapiro says that’s true if “needless” means not required for graduation. But it’s important to distinguish between students who have failed to control their studies with proper advising, she says, and those “who are consciously seeking a broader or deeper education than is the norm.”

The pluses are positive enough that Joseph Cronin, a lecturer in the School of Education’s administration, training, and policy department, implemented three-year degrees as president of Bentley College (now University) in Waltham, Mass., in the 1990s.

“It adds a year to one’s career and could save many thousands of dollars,” he says. BU’s fall and spring semesters “barely total half a year. The United States can do better for families,” Cronin insists.

Oberlin’s Starr suggested that three-year degree candidates take a year off after high school to work and mature, then commence their college careers. He also conceded that only the most motivated students possess the requisite academic prowess and discipline for accelerated graduation; one German study by a health insurance fund and the University of Bielefeld found increased stress and depression among students there partly because of the new, quicker degree. Even Devane, for whom overload was not a problem, regrets that she’ll forego Senior Week and a year with the friends who entered BU with her.

And then there are folks like Brooke Hunter (CAS’11), who cautions that maybe the tortoise’s pace really is better than the hare’s during the college years.

An international relations major who wanted to ease her family’s financial burden after the financial collapse in 2008, Hunter studied summers while at BU to earn her degree in three years. The savings will help with her plan to someday attend law school. And yet, “I definitely regret” racing through BU, she says. Students at other schools similarly have accelerated their studies because of the economy, so she no longer stands out to employers for her motivation and academic skills, she says. (Hunter works in Cambridge, Mass., as a web designer and development officer for human rights groups.) And her 25 percent tuition discount came at a cost, she says.

“I was just hitting my stride, I was just getting into the classes that I wanted to take, I was just building up my confidence where I could speak out in class,” when the curtain came down on her college years. “To then be cut short was kind of painful,” she says.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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