As a freshman in college, I realized I have a lot of friends – engineering majors and the like – who aren’t graduating in four years, and honestly, it scares me. College is already expensive enough; for low-income and middle class students just a little “too rich” for a full financial aid package, tuition costs alone are brutal. So when I heard that President Michael Roth was promoting the three-year option here at Wesleyan University, I had to check it out. (Check out Roth’s Huffington Post article on Wes’ three-year option here.)

The three-year option follows an accelerated bachelor’s degree program – varying from college to college – that allows a student to graduate in six semesters instead of eight, saving that student an entire year’s cost of tuition, room and board, books, etc. “Only 4.2% of U.S. undergraduates earned bachelor’s degrees in three years, according to the most recent statistics from the Education Department,” reported USA Today writer Phil H. Shook in 2009. Today, the three-year option continues to gain popularity with American college and university students as a “more economic path to graduation,” in the words of class dean David Phillips of Wesleyan University.

Graduating in six semesters can save you an estimated 25% of the traditional four-year college experience’s cost by foregoing a fourth year. Finishing your undergraduate education at a faster rate also means entering graduate school earlier or starting your career sooner than your peers would. In light of the economic downturn in 2008, educators hope that accelerated bachelor degree programs will stimulate the economy with well-educated graduates entering the work force more quickly. With the three-year option, claims US News writer Katy Hopkins, you not only save the money you would have spent on a fourth year at college, but you also gain an extra year’s worth of earnings by entering the work force early.

The three-year option has its drawbacks, however. Most colleges expect a transfer of at least some pre-matriculation credits (earned from Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests, or college credits earned in high school), so the three-year option is easier to pull off at colleges that allow you to transfer more pre-matriculation credits (Wesleyan only allows you to transfer a maximum of two), and/or when you’ve earned many pre-matriculation credits. Most colleges expect you to also take summer classes to earn enough credits for graduation, and more often than not, you won’t have enough time to study abroad. Three-year bachelor degrees are not necessarily possible for all majors offered at your university; an engineering major, for example, is hard enough to pull off in four years, let alone three. In three years, you have fewer opportunities to explore academic options at your college, and you have to ask yourself if sacrificing your senior year in college is rushing you through the best four years of your life. Nowadays, though, higher education is becoming less and less affordable, and for many students attending American colleges, the cost efficiency of a earning a bachelor’s degree in three years overshadows many of its drawbacks.

If you’re currently a college student and interested in the three-year option, talk with your class dean, faculty advisor, and head of the department in which you intend to major, as well as your school’s three-year option coordinator (if your school has one), to discuss the possibility of accelerated graduation. Not a college student yet? Browse the websites of colleges and universities in which you’re interested for mention of accelerated graduation programs, or check out College Confidential’s thread on the three-year option.

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