Can these colleges, accreditors breathe new life into a bachelor’s degree?

"If every student who started a four-year degree finished and launched their careers, then I can see why someone would ask, 'Why change anything?'" says Lori Carrell, chancellor of the University of Minnesota Rochester. "But there are disparities, and it's up to us to make changes and to redesign."

A three-year bachelor’s degree program may have never looked more plausible than in 2024. Several colleges are concluding their first official term this spring or launching this fall and many more are in the middle of small-cohort pilot programs. The catalyst? College leaders are slowly gaining confidence to challenge the centuries-old maxim of a 120-credit baccalaureate program.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” says Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). “There is no imaginary requirement that students have to sit on their butt for four years.”

Some institutions already champion three-year degree programs that don’t break from the credit requirement. The University of Minnesota Morris provides students with expedited scheduling frameworks that require summer classes and leverage college credits earned in high school through dual enrollment, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. However, some colleges are opting to redesign degrees that can be completed in 90 to 100 credits while guaranteeing better retention and graduation rates for students enrolled in traditional degree programs.

“The challenge is not simply to cut some stuff off,” says Lori Carrell, chancellor of the University of Minnesota Rochester and co-head of the College-in-3 Exchange, a consortium of colleges and universities dedicated to designing their own three-year bachelor’s degree frameworks. “The idea is to redesign using evidence-based practices proven to help more students succeed.”

Carrell, whose university is currently testing a two-and-a-half-year health science degree, noted a significant uptick in pilot programs over the last year. The development has given her the confidence to set her sights on 100 campuses testing three-year programs by the end of the year.

Better yet: the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), which accredits institutions across 19 states, announced it’s considering frameworks for “reduced-credit programs” and would offer further evaluation in September, said an HLC spokesperson in an email.

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NWCCU has already approved seven 90-96 credit degrees at BYU-Pathway Worldwide beginning this fall. BYU-Idaho and Ensign College will also be offering their online students Pathway’s programs. Ramaswamy engaged in complex conversations with the Department of Education, state regulatory bodies (such as SHEEO), specialized institutions, graduate schools and employers over the past two years to understand what it would take to move such a program forward.

Every entity more or less expressed the same opinion: It all comes down to whether three-year degrees can demonstrate sufficient student learning outcomes and prepare them for postgraduate education or the job market. “The employers see someone they can hire earlier with the same job skills,” says Pathways President Brain Ashton. “They’re excited to be able to hire our students, who are well-qualified.”

Three-year bachelor’s degree stirs competition

Shorter degrees aren’t in development for convenience’s sake. “Google University” and “Amazon University,” companies that can offer their own credentialing, are winning students in an already shrinking pool of college applicants, says Ramaswamy. Third-party, short-term credentials have become such a force that the HLC is creating quality assurance measures. He also sees perceptions changing at the federal and state levels, with many of the latter choosing to opt out of requiring degrees from job applicants.

“Colleges and universities need to step it up,” he says. “There’s a lot of competition going on.”

Likewise, catalysts for Carrell’s policy push are rising college costs and decreasing student graduation rates. “If every student who started a four-year degree finished and launched their careers, then I can see why someone would ask, ‘Why change anything?'” she says. “But there are disparities, and it’s up to us to make changes and to redesign.”

But as progressive as the NWCCU has been to champion three-year bachelor’s degrees, it’s not without caution. The accrediting body is holding off on approving any more programs until BYU-PW, BYU-I and Ensign can prove measurable student learning outcomes on a term-to-term basis. “We know the intended consequences,” Ramaswamy says, “but we still don’t know the unintended consequences.”

Similarly, institutions accredited by the HLC are moving more conservatively, piloting years-long programs with small cohorts. Aside from ensuring they still offer students “deep, transformational learning,” UMN Rochester is measuring student well-being and belonging and has partnered with the Strada Education Foundation to help measure student success beyond completion, says Carrel.

Early signs are promising: the program remains with a 100% retention rate. “The door is wide open for innovation,” Carrell adds.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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