UMass Amherst Formalizes Three-Year Degree Program

The University of Massachusetts Amherst will offer formal, three-year bachelors degree programs in selected academic disciplines. Beginning next fall, first-year students seeking majors in Economics, Music and Sociology can elect to travel a shortened route to their diplomas; other programs (e.g. Linguistics, Dance and Spanish) could be added to this pilot program in the future.

UMass Amherst emphasizes that in order to take advantage of the rigorous three-year option, students should have pursued Advanced Placement (AP) coursework in high school. AP credits, in addition to taking classes during at least one summer session, will make the abbreviated schedule possible.

Officials at UMass extol the financial benefits of such a program; most notably, participating students avoid the costs associated with a fourth year of college. In an era of rapidly increasing tuition and fees, they suggest, the three-year option provides an incentive for motivated students.

Three-year degree programs, however, could limit the student residential experience, study-abroad options, and—because of a requirement for summer school—opportunities to pursue not-for-credit summer internships or summer jobs. Proponents of the initiative focus on graduates’ quick entry into the workplace—a more attractive benefit, perhaps, when the economy is creating jobs.

Several other state university flagship campuses have had discussionsabout formalized three-year programs: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Colorado at Boulder, to name two.  The state legislature in Rhode Island passed a bill in 2009 requiring that three-year degree programs be made available. Liberal arts colleges like Bates and Franklin and Marshall and a handful of other institutions like Southern New Hampshire University also offer three-year options.

But not all are sold on the three-year degree phenomenon. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told her colleagues in June that “The Three-Year Degree Is No Silver Bullet,” noting: “For the overwhelming majority of American college students, a mere three years of college study might leave them with a piece of paper, but not with a degree that has real value; it would foreclose their opportunity for a truly empowering education.”


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