Wesleyan University has announced a program that will enable students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in three years, joining a growing number of colleges offering the shorter path as a way to save students money.
Some 20 colleges have started three-year programs since the economic downturn, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Wesleyan is among the most prominent.
“This is a significant announcement because Wesleyan is a nationally highly respected university,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “It will certainly encourage many other colleges and universities to look at it.”
But Hartle said student and family interest will ultimately determine the extent of such programs, and so far there has not been a surge in demand. Many students are taking more than four years to finish a degree, experts said.
Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth wrote in a Washington Post blog on Wednesday that the private liberal arts school will help students navigate the three-year route, which is a path he took when he graduated from the school in 1978. He acknowledged the three-year route was not for all students.
“I think it’s important to show that liberal arts colleges, even ones as selective as Wesleyan, are trying to do something about affordability,” Roth said in an interview Friday with The Associated Press. “I think we need to break the mold in American higher education. This is a way of trying something new that doesn’t change the academic quality of the work you’re doing.”
Roth estimated students will save $50,000 off the cost of an undergraduate degree by completing their studies a year earlier. Tuition at Wesleyan will be $45,358 in the 2012-13 academic year, up from $43,404 the prior year and $41,814 two years ago. Room and board now ranges from more than $12,000 to $14,000.
At nonprofit private four-year colleges, tuition and fees were up 4.5 percent from the prior year to $28,500 in 2011-12, the College Board reported last October. Average total charges including room and board were more than $38,000. Wesleyan students will still have to earn 32 credits. By using two Advanced Placement credits and three Wesleyan summer sessions, students would not have to take an overload during any semester, university officials said.
The school is launching the three-year program in the fall. Details are not final. The three-year-program is one of several ways private colleges have been innovating to reduce students’ out-of-pocket costs, said Tony Pals, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Other measures include four-year tuition guarantees and significant increases in institutional student aid budgets, he said.
In 2009, Hartwick College, a liberal arts school in Oneonta, N.Y., announced it would offer students the opportunity to finish a bachelor’s degree in three years. Hartwick now has 87 students out of 1,500 enrolled in the three-year program and has a goal of 10 percent in the program, or about 150 students, spokesman James Jolly said.
Three years is the norm for undergraduate degrees in Europe. In 2010, Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, cautioned that a three-year degree was not a panacea for reducing costs for all students and would be helpful to only a small number of highly motivated, well-prepared students.
Roth said finishing in three years is not that tough, noting it just involves taking classes through half of three summers. He said he expected dozens of students each year to eventually opt for the three-year plan. “It’s an easy innovation to make a quality education more affordable to more students,” Roth said.