College Game Plan

Why a college degree in three years is easier said than done

Key Points
  • More than 30 schools provide a pathway to a bachelor's degree in three years.
  • Expect to take at least 15 credits — that is, five to six classes — per semester.
  • Many accelerated programs fall short because schools clutter students' schedules with general education requirements and deny credit for advanced-placement exams.
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Three-year degree programs are an attractive option to cost-conscious families, yet students should be aware that not all of these accelerated programs may work as advertised.

At least 32 colleges currently offer students the opportunity to wrap up their degrees in three years. That number is growing as families grapple with the rising cost of higher education.

Obtaining a bachelor's degree sooner than the usual amount of time can slice tuition and fees by 25 percent, according to the Progressive Policy Institute.

The savings are significant, considering that the average sticker price for tuition, fees, and room and board during the 2017-2018 school year was $20,770 for public colleges and $46,950 at private schools, according to the College Board.

The problem is that students can expect to hit speed bumps along the way to their accelerated degree — and many of those obstacles are imposed by the schools themselves.

"Schools are forcing four years into three," said Paul Weinstein Jr., a senior fellow of the Progressive Policy Institute. He covered the shortcomings of existing three-year programs in a recent paper.

Colleges aren't always clear in communicating what students need to do in order to successfully finish their degrees in less time, Weinstein said.

"Some provide guidance on their policy for accelerated programs, while others say you can do it in three years if you come with advanced-placement credits and the program is slapped together," he said.

Here's what you need to know before your child attempts a three-year degree program.

AP ambiguity

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Advanced-placement exams allow students to shave off time and money from their college education while they're still in high school.

There are more than 30 advanced-placement courses available, culminating in exams that students can take for college credit, provided they score at least a 4 out of 5 on the test.

The problem is that there is no guarantee that doing well on an AP exam will be enough to get your child out of required college courses.

It's going to be hard for anyone who isn't just incredibly organized and an outstanding student.
Paul Weinstein, Jr.
senior fellow, Progressive Policy Institute

Incoming freshmen may still be required to take prerequisite classes toward their degree — and that can cost time and money during the first year.

"Generally speaking, the more selective the college, the less likely you are to get the time saved," said Mark Kantrowitz, student loan expert and publisher at the website Private Student Loans Guru. "The Ivy Leagues mostly require 5s and you may not be able to substitute the test for a required class."

Head off this ambiguity by speaking directly to the registrar or the department heads at the college your child is interested in.

The right guidance

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In order to get through an accelerated program successfully, students need guidance.

The best three-year programs offer help on how to complete the degree in a shortened period, encourage students to hone in on their majors early, and help students plan to handle a heavier load of coursework, said Weinstein at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Accelerated degrees can require students to take a minimum of 15 credit hours per semester — the equivalent of five or six classes, said Private Student Loans Guru's Kantrowitz.

Students also need to coordinate their summer coursework: If they take a class at a community college close to home during vacation, they need to make sure that their school will view it as the equivalent of a course that's required for their degree.

"It's going to be hard for anyone who isn't just incredibly organized and an outstanding student," said Weinstein at the Progressive Policy Institute.

"Schools should be working with students and giving them a sense of what their priorities should be when it comes to completing their coursework," he said.

Financial aid

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Get acquainted with what an accelerated bachelor's degree might mean for your child's financial aid package.

Year-round Pell grants, which give students 150 percent of their original award, may be available to your child to help offset the cost of summer classes.

You should also understand how your child's school charges tuition: Is it a flat fee up to a certain amount of credits? Or does the school charge on a per-credit basis?

"Schools that charge you for every credit beyond 12 or 15 may charge you more," said Kantrowitz at Private Student Loans Guru.

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