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I’ve loved my four years at Penn. But ever since the University entered the $50k club, I’ve been reminded again that my education here comes with a significant cost. In all honesty, I could have had almost as good an experience in three years as in four. Apparently, I’m not the only college student who feels this way.

In response to increased student demand, some colleges have begun to offer students the option to complete their undergraduate education in only three years. Just last month, the interim president of the University of Illinois announced that administrators there were studying the feasibility of introducing a formal three-year Bachelor’s degree program.

As the price of higher education continues to climb, more colleges in the U.S. should also consider offering three-year undergraduate programs alongside traditional four-year programs.

Like most groundbreaking ideas, the concept of a three-year undergraduate program has received a fairly cool response from the establishment — the higher-education establishment, that is. In the most recent issue of Liberal Education, a publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the association’s president Carol Schneider attacked the proposal on the grounds that it would hamper America’s ability to develop “globally savvy citizens who are ready to tackle 21st century challenges.”

“Shrinking the curriculum — at whatever level — is exactly the wrong thing to do,” writes Schneider. “This is exactly the wrong time to persuade ourselves that the dominant three-year European model of primary study in a single field ought to be the future design for college-level learning in the United States.”

Three-year undergraduate programs certainly allow less time for intellectual exploration, whether it’s through a second major or activities like study-abroad. But an extra year of intellectual exploration comes with a pretty steep price tag — sometimes as high as $50,000.

And for some students, the cost of a four-year curriculum can prevent them from completing or enrolling in an undergraduate program. That’s what the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found in a comprehensive study released at the end of 2008. The rising cost of a Bachelor’s degree and the increased debt that students need to bear is causing the U.S. “to slip behind other countries in improving college opportunities for our residents,” according to the report. Faltering college completion and participation rates, the study added, deprived “the nation of college-educated and trained workers needed to keep the American workforce competitive globally.”

In short, increasing the number of three-year programs could convince more high school students to get an undergraduate degree. And in today’s economy, a college degree is almost essential.

Interestingly, some of the biggest proponents of three-year programs have come from Penn. Former Graduate School of Education professor George Keller, for example, endorsed the idea in his book Higher Education and the New Society, completed shortly before his death in 2007. Keller wrote that “the option of three-year degrees seems a no-brainer” given that many students in today’s world go into graduate studies or other professional education programs later on in their lives.

So why the reluctance to offer three-year programs? Keller wryly notes that most higher-education “institutions seem content to pass on the financial burdens to students.”

Let’s be clear: America’s university system is certainly among the best — if not the best — in the world. Students come to the United States from all over the world to attend our educational institutions. The strength of America’s system, however, has always been rooted in dynamism and its ability to adopt new learning techniques and technologies. By offering three-year undergraduate programs, American colleges will not only make higher education more accessible, but also continue a practice of innovation that has served it so well in the past.

Ashwin Shandilya is a Wharton senior from New Market, Md. He is the former Marketing Manager and Editorial Page Editor of the DP. His e-mail address is Penn vs Sword appears on Thursdays.

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