Doug Cohen: A fix for student debt

The nation is currently grappling with a $1.1 trillion dollar debt.

And that number has nothing to do with the federal deficit or government spending.

Last week, USA Today reported that total outstanding student loan debt will break the $1 trillion mark, as students took out another $100 billion in loans over the past year.

The issue of student loan debt has taken center stage in the national discourse, as President Barack Obama and other politicians have been searching for solutions to relieve this crushing burden.

We need a real way to make college more affordable for families. The University should create a three-year bachelor degree curriculum for certain departments and majors, with defined academic advisors and support for the program. A three-year bachelor program can potentially serve as an essential financial lifeline for families.

While I wrote about the three-year degree earlier this year, this mounting issue of student debt gives rise to a fresh reason for giving students that option.

A three-year bachelor’s degree has the same amount of credits as a traditional four-year program, but it only requires students to take four years of courses in three years.

And by just shaving one year off the traditional four-year college experience, the savings can be enormous. Students at four-year private universities save an average of $30,393, according to the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Furthermore, graduating a year early allows students to enter the workforce faster, adding an average of $35,383 to savings.

For example, for students at Southern New Hampshire University, savings can amount to a whopping $39,118 for students who live on campus, according to the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

In times of economic difficulty for so many families, the importance of these savings cannot be overlooked. When you eliminate a year of school, you recover part of the actual cost of attending and any extra expenses, such as interest rates on loans.

By offering a degree in three years, GW can attract families who may have been second-guessing a GW education because of the particularly high tuition and the fear of burdening loans. This would seem to be a no-brainer for both students and the University.

To decide which majors or programs should first test the three-year degree, the University can follow Hartwick College’s model of departmental review.

Hartwick requested that each department reviews, whether or not they would be able to provide their programs in a three-year structure at the same quality. Currently, 24 of Hartwick’s 30 majors are offered in three years. After this review, each department can create a three-year curriculum with the necessary academic advisors and support for students who choose to enroll.

Departments can then work with the University to determine the time frame for accomplishing a shortened degree. At Lipscomb University, students are required to take two summer sessions of classes, while Hartwick College students take additional courses each semester and participate in a January term. Similarly, Bates College requires students to take five courses a semester and participate in an additional spring term.

Many students are not prepared for the fast pace and heavy workload that often accompanies graduating in three years. Additionally, many majors simply cannot be condensed into three years, such as certain engineering fields. But that is why the three-year degree doesn’t have to be for everyone — it doesn’t have to be the standard; it can be the exception.

There is no doubt that the three-year degree model has to be refined to make it worthwhile for students and financially acceptable for universities. But as we have reached a depressing landmark with student loan debt and college affordability, the potential financial trade-offs of a three-year degree outweigh the academic concerns of many students. The University is obligated to reduce costs for students using all options, and must act now.

Doug Cohen, a junior majoring in political science, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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