Cutting the Cost of College with Three-Year Degrees

By / 6.14.2016

Recently a group urging free tuition at Harvard University failed to win a seat on the University’s Board of Overseers. With an endowment of $38 billion, Harvard can afford to have this debate. But the vast majority of schools in America today are too tuition dependent to offer universal free tuition. And while any plan to get the debt monkey off the back of students is welcome, the reality is the promise of free tuition is illusory – most of the proposals would only cover the cost of tuition at your typical community college, fail to reign in rising college prices, and are cost prohibitive (for example Senator Sanders proposal would run about $70 billion a year).

Fortunately, many voters have not been blinded by the allure of promises of free tuition. According to a recent poll by veteran Democratic pollster Peter Brodnitz for the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), When asked to choose between free college tuition and a proposal to offer three-year college degrees, thereby cutting college tuition costs by a quarter, Swing voters picked three year degrees by a 63 percent to 29 percent margin

Three-year colleges are the norm in many European countries, and a few enterprising universities here have begun to follow suit. This proposal would require any U.S. college or university with students who receive any type of federal student aid to offer the option of earning a bachelor’s degree in three years, and to hold annual increases in the price of tuition and fees to just over inflation.

By making a three-year bachelor’s degree the norm the cost of attending college would drop dramatically. Students currently attending four-year public schools (in-state) would see savings on average of $8,893 while those at private schools would experience a $30,094 reduction.

Cutting tuition by a quarter would also reduce the amount students need to borrow. Nearly 70 percent of bachelor degree holders have taken out student loans, with an average debt burden of $29,400. Assuming someone borrows $29,400 at the going rate of 4.66 percent over four years, the interest owed would amount to $7,505. But shaving a year off college cuts that interest tab to about $5,629, a savings of $1,876. And keep in mind we are talking averages here; the many students carrying debts well above the average will reap bigger savings.

But wouldn’t shaving a year off college also mean giving colleges a financial haircut? Not necessarily. Colleges could increase the number of students in each incoming class by 33 percent given that annual class capacity would be greater with the elimination of the 4th year. While suffering transition costs over the initial three years, many schools, particularly the most attractive ones in the top two-thirds of college rankings, would eventually be made whole under the Three-Year Degree.

While some schools might be tempted to squeeze a four-year degree into three years, that approach would be unwise, given that the majority of today’s college students need six years to complete a bachelors.

A better approach would be for schools and their accreditors to rethink their curriculum. For example, reducing the number of electives, cutting back on core requirements or shifting to shorter semesters are all options that schools could use to move to a three-year bachelors and improve the educational experience.

The debate over the cost of college is long overdue. Yet the solution cannot be one that would cripple the world’s finest system of higher education nor allow colleges and universities to continue to pile debt on the backs of families and students. Shifting to a three-year degree bachelor will ensure American’s can afford college to send their children to college again while expanding access to the best schools in the world.