Since the middle of the 20th Century a degree from an American university has been the most sought-after academic credential in the world. Until stifled by COVID-19, every year more than one million learners from around the world sought admission to U.S. colleges and universities. Now, however, as learners around the world – especially in the Global South – seek less expensive opportunities through online learning, American institutions are facing two competitive disadvantages in the international marketplace: price and time to completion. While elsewhere in the world the standard has shifted to programs typically requiring three years for the award of an undergraduate credential, the U.S. remains bound by a four-year model.

Debate over the three-year alternative in the U.S. has focused on the traditional residential campus experience. Much of the opposition to shortening the time-to-degree has arisen out of the belief in the importance of the socializing effect of the “college experience.” Conversely, as aptly described by Emma Whitford in a recent Inside Higher Education article, the changing nature of the American student population, older — employed, with family obligations and increasingly price-sensitive – has made the three-year option increasingly preferred.

While that was noticed here, it did not represent any particular domestic challenge. Learners who really wanted to complete their undergraduate studies more quickly could skip frills like summer vacations or

secure course (i.e. credit) equivalencies through such vehicles as Prior Learning Assessments. And international students still flocked to U.S. campuses, drawn by the reputation of American brands burnished by an accreditation system that has long represented a global “gold standard.”

Beyond Borders

However, as American institutions increasingly look to expand their reach through international online enrollment –particularly in the Global South—they are finding an increasingly serious structural disadvantage: the growing prevalence of the three-year undergraduate degree, the standard across the EU and in many Asian countries. Simply put, a three-year undergraduate program should be less expensive than the four-year alternative. In the majority of Southern Hemisphere countries, where the disposable income of an aspiring middle class is very significantly less than in the “developed” North, the price of a degree becomes a significant market factor. U.S. institutions seeking to serve the very large number of less affluent learners in Africa, South Asia and South America are challenged by the inherently higher price point for a standard credential – not to mention the additional investment in time for populations where discretionary time is precious.

This dichotomy manifests itself in two primary ways. One, of course, is head-to-head competition. As institutions, particularly in Europe, more aggressively pursue these huge underserved markets, U.S. schools suffer a significant economic disadvantage. Historically, of course, American accreditation commanded a premium price. But in many markets that premium simply places the educational product out of reach.

The U.S. model has another disadvantage in that it limits the ability of American institutions to creatively collaborate with foreign partners. As joint- and dual-degree programs become more common, and as an increasing number of institutions in Europe and Asia are partnering to maximize their ability to compete in new markets, the disconnect between the U.S. four-year model and the three-year alternative is creating a barrier to creative collaboration.

A Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree, Online

Now, after years of stop-and-go effort, the acceptance of a true three-year bachelor’s degree in the U.S. appears poised to emerge. Thanks to the development of what are variously described as “pilot” and “incubator” projects, an increasing number of institutions, in close collaboration with their accreditors, are developing three-year models, a process spurred on by the efforts of Penn professor Robert Zemsky and Lori Carrell, Chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Rochester. Pressures to reduce the cost of higher education articulated by political leaders like Lamar Alexander, who famously called for a higher education system that is “faster, better and cheaper,” and the willingness of both the accreditors and the Department of Education to entertain alternatives to the 120-credit/four-year lockstep, American colleges are gaining the option to compete directly with their foreign competitors.

In the world of online learning, this change levels the playing field to enable American institutions to become major providers of quality online learning to a vast new audience. And it affords new opportunities for U.S.-accredited schools to far more easily collaborate with their international counterparts to offer programs through which a student can receive a dual- or joint-credential that has wider recognition and more value in the marketplace, while still benefiting from the economy of a

shorter duration. Lastly, of course, it has the potential to shorten time to completion for the increasing number of domestic students who are questioning the cost and ROI of an undergraduate credential.

Today it is still mostly smaller institutions that are piloting true three-year programs, largely campus-based. But it is the adoption of this modality in the online space that can truly transform the global competitive marketplace. The potential benefit to both American institutions and to the many millions for whom cost-and-time effective higher education could become available is incalculable.

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