To cut costs, more college students consider studying in the fast lane

University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus
University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

As the cost of earning a college degree continues to increase, some students have found a way to lower their tuition bills: earn a four-year degree in three years.

Only a very small percentage of students do so now, but more may try as Minnesota colleges consider programs that would help student obtain their degrees faster.

Among those already earning degree in three years is Thayeng Her, who will graduate in May from Winona State University with a double major in public administration and political science. For Her, the next move is law school.

"Hopefully I get accepted, cross my fingers," she said.

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If Her, 21, isn't accepted to law school, she plans to work for a year, then apply again next year.

Her, of Roberts, Wis., sped college along by taking advanced placement courses in high school, and summer courses at Winona State.

In the end, it was a financial decision. As a Wisconsin resident, Her's tuition and fees are about $13,000 a year.

"It really made sense to graduate and not have to pay that one year's worth of tuition," she said.

With students' financial concerns in mind, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is studying whether some of its traditional four-year bachelor's degree programs could be compressed to three years.

Students can finish many programs in three years at MnSCU's universities, if they have the drive.

It requires taking college classes in high school, heavier than normal course loads each semester, and a few summer classes.

Less than two percent of MnSCU students graduate in three years.

MnSCU officials are not interested in "pushing" more students to finish in three years, said Scott Olson, an interim vice chancellor. But they would like to have a better system in place to help those students who want to wrap up earlier.

"What our board of trustees is interested in is ways to maybe streamline that further, ways to promote it more extensively and encourage students even when they're back in high school to do that -- if they choose to do that," he said.

MnSCU might have to change its academic calendar to accommodate a three-year bachelor's degree, Olson said. Instead of taking their summers off, students would likely be in class just as they are in a regular semester.

There are a number of colleges across the country considering three-year degrees. It's not a new idea, although in the past the chance to earn a three-year degree hasn't been popular with students.

Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said it's time for three-year degrees to get a fresh look.

"With rising costs, and new consciousness and new promotion of the concept it might have a chance," Vedder said. "I would certainly hope we do more experimentation with the three-year degree."

The University of Minnesota started its first three-year undergraduate degree program this year. The program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs is for students who plan to go into graduate school immediately after they receive their undergraduate degree.

But finishing in three years isn't for everyone, said Robert McMaster, dean of undergraduate education at the U of M.

"There's a whole group of students who really can't graduate in three years because it takes them two years to figure out what they're ultimate major would be and that's just fine," he said. "That's sort of what the university is all about."

The number of U of M students graduating in three years has been on a slow rise. In 1997 it was less than half a percent of graduating seniors. By 2007 it had risen to about 5 percent, or 200 out of the more than 5,000 who graduated.

McMaster said U of M is more concerned about helping students get out the door in only four years.

Less than half of all Minnesota public college students earn their degrees in four years. The number is a bit higher at Minnesota's private colleges, just over 60 percent.