Cut College Costs: Make 3-Year Degrees the Norm

Cut College Costs: Make 3-Year Degrees the Norm
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In this Sept. 30, 2013, file photo, students cross a pedestrian bridge over the Red Cedar river on the Michigan State University campus on the way to and from classes in East Lansing, Mich.(AP Photo/Detroit News, Dale G. Young, File)

RCEd Commentary

With tuition bills tripling in the last 10 years and student debt now greater than auto and credit card debt, American college students deserve a break.

Unfortunately, most higher education reform ideas would simply “feed the beast,” by expanding financial aid that allows colleges and universities to continue to raise prices at will. Loan forgiveness, new tax breaks, larger Pell Grants, and pay-it forward loan schemes not only fail to rein in rising costs, they help to accelerate them by providing subsidies without cost controls.

But there is a fix to what ails the American higher education system, one that would slash the bill for college by 25 percent: the Three-Year Degree.

As I recently wrote in a report for the Progressive Policy Institute, the Three-Year Degree policy would require any college or university that has students who receive federal aid to make earning a bachelor’s degree in three years the norm. If combined with a proposal to simplify and streamline the alphabet soup of federal grant programs and tax incentives into a single grant (Simplified Higher Education Grant) worth $3,820, these two reforms could cut the financial burden for graduates by over $20,000 at public institutions (in-state) and by as much as $41,000 at private schools, with no new federal spending.

The Three-Year Degree is already being adopted throughout Europe and has been pushed to varying degrees in the United States. Washington and Rhode Island passed laws ordering the development of three-year degrees and other states, including Indiana and Ohio, have tried to do the same. Some schools offer three-year degree options, including Bates College, St. Johns University, Wesleyan College and Purdue University.

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 fourth 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, should eventually be made whole financially under the Three-Year Degree plan.

How schools move to the three-year model would be left up to them and their regional and state accreditors. Some schools could require students to attend two summer semesters. Others could shift to a trimester system that begins in August and ends in June. Another approach would be to have courses meet more regularly and adjust the credit hours.  

To ensure that schools don't simply raise tuition prices to four-year levels while providing just three years of college, participating colleges and universities would have to agree to not raise tuition and fees (including school housing) beyond what they charge for three years at today's prices (both sticker and median). In addition, annual tuition increases would be limited by some agreed upon formula that tracks just slightly above the rate of inflation. To ensure fairness, future increases could be determined by a review commission made up of federal, state, and local officials, university and college presidents, as well as student representatives.

For generations of Americans, earning a college degree was considered the surest way to achieve the American Dream. But the rising cost of college and the tremendous debt burden it will place on our children is now threatening to derail that track to prosperity. While many policymakers have focused on ways to augment financial aid, the question of how to cut the actual cost of getting a degree has been largely ignored. We can no longer afford to discount that crucial second question. 

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