Months after another school’s proposal for three-year college degrees was shot down by an accreditation body, another accreditor has approved seven shortened degrees to be offered next spring by BYU-Idaho and Ensign College through BYU-Pathway Worldwide.

“This is revolutionary in higher education today,” BYU-PW President Brian K. Ashton said.

The degrees will require 25% less time in classrooms than most other U.S. bachelor’s degrees. BYU-PW’s unique structure also means the shorter degrees will cost less. And the $7,200 price tag can be further reduced by widely available scholarships.

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The pathway

Previous efforts to offer three-year degrees generally have taken two paths. Some simply created models to deliver the traditional 120 credit hours for an American bachelor’s degree in a shorter time. The University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic provide a 2.5-year bachelor’s degree in health sciences, but students study year-round and take 17 credits per semester.

Others have tried and failed to reduce the number of credit hours required because accreditors refused to approve them. New England College proposed the first degree with fewer credit hours — 100 — earlier this year, but the New England Commission of Higher Education shot it down, according to Inside Higher Ed.

That makes the new BYU-Idaho and Ensign College degrees, which will require 90 to 96 credit hours, apparently the fewest hours for a bachelor’s degree in American higher education.

They proposed the degrees to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in April. The NWCCU approved the proposal at its June meeting and formally informed the schools by letter on Aug. 21.

The degrees eliminated electives and will require roughly 30 classes instead of the traditional 40, Ashton said.

The idea of college in three years is designed to accelerate delivering students the education they need for employment. BYU-Pathway Worldwide was created in 2017 by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to offer multiple solutions to the problem.

“Providing access to affordable education everywhere the church is organized is critical to what we do,” Elder Clark G. Gilbert, commissioner of the Church Educational System, said in a statement. “This optimized degree structure will make completing a degree a possibility for many more people, particularly those who have not felt higher education was a viable option for them.”

What three-year degrees do BYU-Idaho and Ensign College offer?

BYU-Idaho will offer five degrees — applied business management, family and human services, software development, applied health, and professional studies.

Ensign College will offer two — communications and information technology.

They will be available online only, through BYU-Pathway Worldwide.

All seven degrees will follow BYU-Pathway’s program of stacking certificates and degrees. Students first enroll in PathwayConnect, a six-month on-ramp into higher education. Some 60% of students who finish PathwayConnect find improved employment, Ashton said.

Students then enroll through BYU-Pathway at either BYU-Idaho or Ensign College. They can earn their first college certificate in a chosen field six months later.

The second year of study offers a second certificate and with it, an associate’s degree.

The third year offers a third certificate. Until now, many students would finish the third year with an associate’s degree and three certificates, but were 30 elective hours short of a bachelor’s degree.

Now, they can finish the third year with a bachelor’s degree.

Why did the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities approve the degrees?

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities approved the seven degrees after some initial discomfort about approving a “watered down” degree, according to Inside Higher Ed.

But NWCCU president Sonny Ramaswamy said that the accreditation body had followed closely the growing momentum around three-year degrees.

Ramaswamy said NWCCU found elements of the eliminated electives were maintained in the three-year bachelor’s degree programs offered by BYU-Idaho and Ensign College. In other words, they were not watered down.

He told Inside Higher Ed that any three-year degree programs with fewer credit hours need to “demonstrate the same learning outcomes as a student getting a four-year degree.”

BYU-Idaho and Ensign College will report regularly to NWCCU on the outcomes and progress of students enrolled in the new degrees, Ashton said.

NWCCU previously had accredited some programs at Western Governors University that range between 97 and 110 credit hours. WGU is a private, nonprofit, online university based in Millcreek, Utah, that offers degrees, after aid, as low as $11,835.

Eliminating electives appeared critical to the needs of the students who came to BYU-Idaho’s online classes from BYU-Pathway Worldwide, which has nearly 70,000 students in more than 180 countries.

“We were in a situation where students would get all of the core, stackable requirements done and their general education classes done, but we still couldn’t give them a degree because they had to take another 30 elective credits,” said Boyd Baggett, director of institutional effectiveness and accreditation at BYU-Idaho.

“It’s really hard to tell somebody that when they are going without food so they can have internet service. We were watching social media conversations where people were saying, ‘what are the easiest 30 credits I can get? What are the easiest classes I can get credit for?’ That’s just not what you want for a breadwinner or a single mom trying to get her degree.”

BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s average online student is 33 years old, takes two classes at a time, works full-time, and supports a family.

Ashton said that 90-credit degree programs mean a student who takes two classes in each of BYU-PW’s six terms a year can complete a bachelor’s degree in three years. About 90% of those who complete degrees through BYU-Pathway report improved employment, he said.

Growing momentum for three-year degrees

Momentum has been building for three-year degrees for years now. In 2009, politicians pushed for shorter degrees to help workers get the skills they needed to qualify for jobs. Efforts to provide such degrees struggled to get off the ground.

Some succeeded, like NewU, but it still required 120 hours. It lengthened semesters to 18 weeks so classes were four credits instead of three. And NewU, while licensed, is not accredited by one of the nation’s main accreditation bodies.

A group called “College-in-Three” has been building momentum for several years for 90-credit degrees, with several schools developing pilot programs. BYU-Idaho’s Baggett said the Latter-day Saint-sponsored schools had been considering 90-hour degrees since at least 2009. When they learned about “College in Three,” they joined the consortium. Nearly a dozen “College in Three” schools are moving toward offering three-year degrees.

Other include the American Public University system, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Merrimack College, New England College, Northwood University, Portland State University, the University of Minnesota at Morris, the University of Minnesota at Rochester, the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh and Utica University.

How will employers and graduate schools respond to three-year degrees?

Baggett said he’s talked to a large number of graduate schools and found them open to the idea of accepting students with three-year degrees.

He said employers care less and less about degrees. They simply want to match skills to their available jobs.

In fact, last December, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced the state would put skills first, eliminating the requirement of a bachelor’s degree for most state government jobs.

“Degrees have become a blanketed barrier-to-entry in too many jobs,” Cox said. “Instead of focusing on demonstrated competence, the focus too often has been on a piece of paper. We are changing that.”

Now, 98% of the state executive branch’s 1,080 different classified jobs do not require a degree. Instead, the state’s hiring managers and hiring committees consider comparable experience as equal to educational qualifications at every step in the evaluation and recruiting process. 

The BYU-Idaho and Ensign College three-year degrees are designed specifically to provide the skills that employers are seeking, Ashton said.

BYU-Pathway has launched a webpage about the three-year degrees at byupathway.org/degree-in-three.