Could a Zero-Year College Degree Really Happen?

Here’s a proposal for eliminating debt from student loans for college: a zero-year degree.

No such degree actually exists. The preposterous-sounding notion is mentioned in an article in Business Week about President Barack Obama’s recently announced plan to “shake up” higher education, including his suggestion that law school should take two instead of three years. Speaking at a town hall-style meeting at Binghamton University in New York, Obama surprised the audience by saying that, after two years of classroom learning, “students in their third year would be better off clerking or practicing in a firm even if they weren’t getting paid that much, but that step alone would reduce the costs for the student.”

Others have proposed that college last for only three years to save undergraduates not only money but time. In some cases, college students with enough credit from taking high school Advanced Placement courses and/or some community college courses can already graduate in fewer than four years from college.

A few schools, including the University of Houston-VictoriaSt. John’s University and Grace College and Seminary in Indiana have created actual “degree in three” programs. To complete all their requirements, students in Grace College’s program take more courses in the fall and spring semesters as well as courses in the summer. Grace College contends that this “plan can save students up to 50 percent on college, between costs they don’t pay and salaries they could begin to earn a year early.”

Costs are the main reason behind efforts to shorten the time it takes to earn a college degree. Students still have to earn, and pay for, sufficient amounts of course credit. Savings come from not having to pay for four years of (if a student lives on-campus) room and board and other fees.

The notion of zero-year-degree rests on developments in online education and specifically regarding MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Some universities like San Jose State have been experimenting with having students take MOOCs for credit; the results (as far as student performance) have so far been mixed.

Georgia Institute of Technology has started to offer a masters degree in computer science via MOOCs, for the relatively low fee of $6,600 — in comparison to about $45,000 in tuition alone for out-of-state students enrolled in the traditional on-campus computer science master’s degree and $21,000 for Georgia residents.

As MOOCs are (for the time being) free and a student can complete coursework whenever they wish — when not working, for instance, or (if they are parents) when their children are occupied — it is possible that someone could earn a degree in zero years, in the sense that they wouldn’t have to stop working or otherwise change their life to acquire a college degree.

Such an idea has its appeal as well as numerous limitations. For a start, switching to a two-or-three year degree option would be most highly impractical for most schools as this would require a major revamping of curriculum, faculty teaching loads and other resources. It would certainly affect how financial aid is delivered and a university’s own finances.

At least 60 percent of college students need at least an extra semester to complete their degree. For such students, taking more courses in a shorter space of time might not simply be doable. Conversely, some students could very well benefit from the flexibility of online courses. Rather than take five, six or more years to earn a degree at a “bricks and mortar” campus, they could study at their own pace and (virtually) attend class at the times (not early in morning, perhaps) they’re most ready to learn.

Tuitions, loans and debt are topics one routinely hears about when a college education is mentioned. A zero-year-degree at a low cost is likely to remain a matter of speculation. The fact that we are even talking about it suggests how frustrated many feel about the current state of things for recent college grads and the need for serious innovations in higher education.


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Kate S.
Kate S4 years ago


Donna Ferguson
Donna F4 years ago

you gave me some food for thought; ty

Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian4 years ago

Cutting university to three years might be doable, but it would require major revamping well beyond the curricula of programs.

The first problem is that students do not come out of secondary schools ready to take the courses necessary for them to handle professions. The first year of university in the U.S. is a matter of playing catch-up on reading, writing, basic math, study-habits.

The second problem is that summer-classes are not really an option for a lot of students. University is their first time away from home, and the greatest challenges they face is not the academics, but the separation from their whole support-structure and handling life on their own. They need to go home for more than just short breaks or they will burn out.

The third problem is that the STEM fields include a lot of courses that build upon each other and must be taken sequentially. That imposes a hard limit on how much those programs can be shortened, and the sequences only really begin once a student selects a major. Students would have to have the information to select a major earlier to shorten those programs, and these are not fields which we want to see suffer as students are eager to graduate.

Kevin Reeder
Kevin Reeder4 years ago

American education standards are falling. They have been for a while. The U.N. study in 2007 ranked us at 14th. More recent scores have places us at 17th and then 20th. Whatever else you may gain from the data, it is clear that quite a few countries do education better a lot than America. Yet all the advice and ideas being put forth by legislators and education "experts" have at least one thing in common; no intention whatsoever of even attempting to apply the successful practices of these other countries to our system. Canada is ranked number 3 in world. They beat us out by a landslide in every aspect related to education. It shares a border with us and we in general get along with them quite splendidly. Why don't we at least consider implementing their ideas? The so called "experts" in our own country clearly aren't doing a very good job. Get some help from the experts that actually succeeded.

James F.
James F.4 years ago

Diana- I think we should just outlaw unions in education all together. They do nothing but prevent much needed change from happening because they fight to protect teachers who aren't working in the best interest of the students. I think that teachers should still have protections, but if a teacher is not working for the student's best interest, they should be let go. In colleges, I'm not sure any university has unions, I know mine doesn't.

Jennifer C.
Past Member 4 years ago


Anne F.
Anne F4 years ago

low residency programs do exist - in Alaska we are advertising to encourage students to take 15 credits a semester (because it has been common to be skating along with just 12).

Christine Stewart

I KNOW there are some classes that are useless for some degrees- the colleges just put them in for "breadth"- pretending that a science major needs 18th century English literature to be a "well-rounded" student- when all that does is waste valuable brain space! Save the students money, and let us take the classes we NEED.

Autumn S.
Autumn S4 years ago


Maureen Hawkins
Maureen Hawkins4 years ago

Beth, You complain about taking "unnecessary" courses to get your degree in Business. Those courses were mainly Liberal Arts courses designed to develop your critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and written and oral communication, which in a recent survey, 93 percent of the employers surveyed said that "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate's] undergraduate major, and more than 75 percent of employers say they want more emphasis on . . . critical thinking, complex problem-solving, [and] written and oral communication. According to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, "Students majoring in liberal arts fields see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." The majors in which they found NO improvement in these area included Business, Education, and Social Work. It would seem that your failure (and that of many others in your field) to understand the value of those courses demonstrates your lack of development of the very skills your employer was seeking.