The Columns

Musgrave: The Rule of Three

— by on June 8th, 2015

by Monica Musgrave

It’s no secret that college is expensive. It’s also no secret that progress towards cheaper education is slow. However, the solution might lie in something a bit unconventional: three-year degrees. With the option of three-year degrees, the obvious benefit goes toward the families and students now only having to pay three years’ worth of tuition as opposed to four. This could mean up to $65,480 in savings for a family (assuming no financial aid is given).

The only problem? There isn’t just one problem.

While many of the arguments against widespread availability of three-year degrees in colleges center on the colleges themselves, it’s important to start with the main beneficiary: the student. It is argued that students in the three-year track would lose some of the college experience. They might not be able to engage in activities as much as they would like because their time on campus is shortened and mired in school work. However, this argument ignores the fact that three years is plenty of time to become engaged in campus life. Current Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth, a beneficiary of a three-year degree, was able to be “president of fraternity, published fiction, took music lessons, held down more than one job, and sought to excel in classes” (De Vise). And President Roth is no exception. For students, the realization that they’re only there for three years is motivation to take full advantage of all their school has to offer.

But what if widespread three-year degree programs encourage parents to place more pressure on their student(s)? To ask this, however, would just be ignoring the fact that students already receive pressure from their parents, no matter how loving and understanding they may be. But what if the student decides he or she doesn’t want to complete the three-year track anymore, or if someone who wasn’t originally in the three-year program wants to jump in? Well, for the student that wishes to leave the program, it would be no more complicated than that: leave. For the student that wishes to jump into the program, while it would be more difficult catching up on credits, it is not impossible. College students already do this, deciding they want to graduate a semester or a year early, spending their summers earning extra credits to accomplish this goal.

But won’t employers find three-year degree students less desirable, since they’re younger and less experienced? While yes, the students are younger, an employer can see that a student who graduates in three years is driven and a hard worker. Besides, the student still graduates with the same degree that requires the same credits as their four-year competitor. Furthermore, the student could easily opt into completing an internship for course credit, a program that many schools already offer, giving them experience their future employer might want.

Okay… but won’t this give more benefits to the more well-off students that come into college with AP or IB credit? Yes, there’s no denying that students from higher income backgrounds are likely to have an easier time with the three-year degree given their already accrued credits. However, those same students from more affluent backgrounds

are also the students least likely to take this route. Given the main motivation for graduating early is financial, those more well off are less likely to be taken with the idea of getting their degree in three years. Regardless, three-year degrees will benefit low-income students immensely and be an incredible motivator for these students to attend college now that it is more affordable.

Okay, but what about the eight credits (32 credits ÷ 4 years = 8 credits/year) that three-year students get essentially for free? Well, with the implementation of MOOCs, such an issue can be avoided at low cost to the student, as low as $25 per course. In the sample pathway, the student is taking 11 credits online, more than compensating the eight-credit loss. A school could even require a mandatory number of online courses to be taken by the student to ensure no loss. But wouldn’t the MOOCs the student would take be subpar? Well, given the fact that many MOOCs come from high-caliber universities like MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley, no. The schools could create a catalogue of approved MOOCs the student could take for satisfactory credit. This would help maintain education to the level that the college desires.

Okay, so there’s nothing but benefits for the students involved, but what about the college? These students are only paying for three years of education and getting four years’ worth. Doesn’t that mean that the college will lose money? Yes, but only if colleges keep the same model they have now. Instead, students could have the option to apply to the three-year degree program at the college within their regular application. In the beginning, schools could accept a number of students equivalent to 12.5% of the total class size into the three-year program. To help offset the decrease of students in the final fourth year, the college could then to accept a number of students equivalent to 10% of the total class size into the regular four-year group. These numbers are hypothetical of course, and could easily be adapted and personalized for each college. By using three-year degrees as a selling point to increase class size, these institutions are able to make up the difference from the new students’ tuition.

But wait… doesn’t that mean that the talent pool of the college would go down? No, actually. Even at Ivy Leagues’ admissions desks, there is an overabundance of talent. Even former dean of admission at both Stanford and Princeton, Fred Hargadon, said that what admissions does is “precision guesswork” (O’Connor). In fact, once the outliers are removed from the application pool (either underqualified or overqualified), that still leaves anywhere from 60% to 80% of applications where a student is qualified to get in. From there, SAT scores and GPAs have negligible differences, and only personal essays, recommendations, and extracurriculars are left as evaluators (Ollove). One of the reasons why they don’t get in is because the schools lack the space. But once the implementation of three-year degree programs is put in place, an effort to increase class size is able to be made. In short, there’s no scarcity of qualified applicants, even at the highest level.

Okay, but what about the increase in the size of the student body? Won’t that put a strain on the school? While yes, this may be true, the college can adapt the numbers in any way they wish to fit their school better. Moreover, bringing in more students will bring in more alumni. Alumni that can donate in the future, maybe even to aid the three-year program. Finally, the implementation of three-year degrees would only increase accessibility for the school, increasing its status in the eyes of everyone: peer institutions, potential students, parents, ranking systems, etc.

All in all, three-year programs really aren’t as difficult to implement as they initially seem.

Monica Musgrave, of the Class of 2018, is from Clayton, N.C.


Works Cited

De Vise, Daniel. “Wesleyan President: A Degree in ‘Three Marvelous Years’.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 May 2012. Web. 20 May 2015.

Figueroa, Rafael S. “A College Counselor’s View of Affirmative Action.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: Head Count. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 Oct. 2012. Web. 21 May 2015.

Goldman, Leah. “The 10 Most Expensive Colleges In America.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 21 May 2015.

O’Connor, Patrick. “Why Harvard Doesn’t Take Every Straight A Student.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 22 May 2015.

Ollove, Michael. “Picking between Students on a Whim and a Prayer.” The Baltimore Sun: College Park. The Baltimore Sun, 04 Mar. 2001. Web. 22 May 2015.

“Three-Year Option.” Wesleyan University Academics. Wesleyan University, n.d. Web. 21 May 2015.