At a time when bachelor’s degrees are more valuable than ever, only about 62 percent of this year’s high school graduates are expected to enroll in college next fall.

What about the rest, and what of the 40 million Americans who have dropped out of college? For many current and prospective learners, school is too expensive. But increasingly it’s not just the money—it’s the daunting years of study that we might call the “time trap,” how the cost of college goes beyond tuition and fees. The price also includes the money you “lose” by being out of the workforce.

Time-trap thinking seems logical, but it’s short-sighted: Degrees mean real earning power and career growth, and many students do work during school.

Importantly, more schools are looking at ways to accelerate that learning journey. They’re taking creative approaches that include the “College in 3” movement and “3+1” programs that combine bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Here are some other things I wish more students knew:

  • Prices have come down recently, at least in inflation-adjusted terms. The College Board annually collects data on average net tuition and fees for first-time, full-time, in-state students enrolled in public four-year institutions. After adjusting for inflation, those prices have declined (in 2023 dollars) from $4,230 in 2012-13 to an estimated $2,730 this year. The study also showed a decline in private tuition.
  • Most full-time undergraduate students receive grants to help cover their costs.
  • At public two-year colleges, first-time, full-time students have been receiving enough grant aid on average to cover their tuition and fees.

Student debt is still a real and looming concern for families. For bachelor’s degree recipients in 2021-22 who had taken out loans, the average amount borrowed was $29,400, according to The College Board. Not ideal, by any means, but that was down from $34,000 five years earlier. As of last spring, a third of college borrowers owed less than $10,000, and 38 percent of all undergraduates finish school with no debt at all.

Beyond that, tuition-free bachelor’s degrees are available now in more than 30 states as some colleges and universities, including even elite private schools, try to reach more students from underserved populations.

Butler University, a private liberal arts school in Indianapolis, recently partnered with Come to Believe, a nonprofit whose model focuses on free tuition for two years and a pathway into a four-year program. Starting in the fall of 2025, Butler will offer tuition-free associate degrees in specific high-demand fields, then provide scholarships so students can go on to complete a bachelor’s degree for less than $10,000.

The three-year bachelor’s degree, while not a new idea, also has fresh momentum.

Butler offers more than 40 degree programs across four academic colleges that can be completed in three years. It also addresses cost and advanced credentials by offering a 3+1 program that gets students a BA and a master’s in four years.

We see growing interest in such programs across the country, along with a healthy dose of ingenuity. Some schools are reducing the overall credit load and creating a tightly woven curriculum that offers all the essentials—along with strong student support.

At Georgetown University last spring, a panel of impassioned and experienced academic leaders shared their ideas about the potential for three-year degrees, saving families a whole year of tuition. While the standard bachelor’s program is 120 credit hours, some proposals called for 90 to 100 credits.

Lori Carrell, chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Rochester, who co-led the discussion on three-year pilot programs, is focused on improving student outcomes and lowering the cost of the degree. She co-authored the 2021 book “Communicate for A Change, Revitalizing Conversations For Higher Education” with Robert Zemsky, an early pioneer of accelerated bachelor’s programs.

“The four-year degree isn’t working for a lot of people,” Carrell said at the Georgetown convening last spring. Now, she’s leading other efforts to help more students finish their degrees, including College-in-3, a callout for colleges and universities who are willing to experiment, take some risks, and solve some problems.

Yes, reducing time reduces cost, but this effort isn’t just about money. The idea is to redesign the curriculum using evidence-based practices that support solid learning—the kind of innovation that promises a real payoff. The first cohort to complete the new, accelerated program at Carrell’s University of Minnesota-Rochester campus will graduate in December.

Students progress through block-scheduled coursework and a yearlong internship. Note that the internship is not an add-on; it’s part of the curriculum. In the design phase, Carrell says, it was important to have deep conversations with the employer, the Mayo Clinic. These discussions helped program developers align the competencies that workers need with the student learning outcomes the university requires.

How do they afford it?

“We’re an educational innovation campus with three principles: Students are at the center, research informs practice, and partners make that possible,” Carrell said. “That last principle is critical.”

It is this hint of early success that should buoy the rest of us. Importantly, accreditors are also getting on board.

Last fall, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) approved two universities’ applications to offer a three-year, 90-credit bachelor’s degree.

In the spring, the New England Commission of Higher Education announced it would consider proposals that allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree with fewer than 120 credits. Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., and New England College are also exploring ways to achieve a three-year bachelor’s degree. What is important in all these efforts is that educators need to redesign programs that—while potentially shorter—still provide students with the full array of skills and knowledge that will set them up for future success.

If you’re still wondering about the urgency of this topic, consider the recent Gallup Lumina Foundation poll that finds seven in 10 student borrowers have delayed at least one significant life event because of student debt. The longstanding post-World War II strategy of enhancing access to higher education isn’t enough. We must do more—much more—to make college success a reality for more Americans. Accelerated degrees are a promising approach as we work toward that goal.

However, this isn’t about just cramming more information into fewer credits to cut the time to a degree. It requires an institutional redesign of college majors and programs within those majors. It demands innovative thinking—and creative partnerships on and off campus.

But if done right, the payoff can be huge—for millions of new graduates, and for society as a whole.

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