Burning Question

Can three-year degrees help Americans afford college?

Wesleyan University, eager to help cash-strapped families avoid crushing college costs, encourages students to shave a year off their time on campus

Wesleyan University in Connecticut wants to let students earn a bachelor's degree in just three years. And the elite private college isn't alone; it's part of a slowly growing movement that's introducing the three-year degree to put college diplomas within financial reach for more young Americans. Here's what you need to know:

Why is Wesleyan offering three-year degrees?
To save students money, mostly. A Wesleyan education costs about $58,000 a year — $45,358 for tuition and another $13,000 for room and board. Though the average student receiving grant aid pays much less — roughly $22,000 — that's still hardly cheap. By knocking off a year of bills and giving graduates a chance to get a full-time job 12 months earlier, Wesleyan hopes to lessen that financial burden. "If we can offer families the same quality undergraduate degree at a significantly reduced total price — and I think we can — why not do it?" says Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth.

How will this work?
Theoretically, students would take extra courses during some semesters or over the summer. But these days, many freshmen arrive on campus with so many AP credits from high school that they already have a semester or two of college credit in the bank. With some summer studies, those students should be able to complete their degree in three years — without having to take any extra coursework during the year, says Roth. And he should know — as a Wesleyan student in the late 1970s, Roth earned his diploma in three years to save his parents a year of tuition, which ran about $6,000 back then.

Will the idea catch on?
Maybe. About 2.5 percent of U.S. college students completed college after just three years in 2006, compared to 1 percent in 1998. And since the economic downturn, about 20 more colleges have started three-year-degree programs. But the movement needs a "tipping point," says Daniel de Vise at The Washington Post. A large public university that commits itself to three-year degrees might suffice. Meanwhile, Wesleyan is highly respected, so its endorsement could speed things along, Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, tells The Associated Press. "It will certainly encourage many other colleges and universities to look at it." 

Sources: Associated Press, Marketplace, Wash. Post (2)

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