Three-year degree programs (Accelerated or Fast Track Degree Programs) - Finance Option


Three-year degree programs are undergraduate college degrees that typically can be completed in three years instead of the traditional four years. Three-year bachelor's degree programs are also referred to as accelerated or fast-track programs.

The concept of three-year degrees has historical roots in European higher education systems. In countries like the United Kingdom, some universities have long offered three-year bachelor's degree programs. In recent years, many higher education institutions in many countries have adopted the accelerated model, especially to reduce the cost of education and enable students to enter the workforce more quickly.

In the U.S., the 120 credit-hour baccalaureate degree has been the norm for more than a century, and most colleges have established the expectation that fulltime students will complete those credit hours in four-years. The reality is that many students take longer than four years, but some complete their undergraduate degree in less than four years. This typically has occurred by combining Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and/or dual-credit college courses in high school; attending classes in the summer or during inter-semester (winter) sessions; completing more than 15 credits per semester; and through crosswalking learning acquired through the military or work using prior learning assessment.

Three-year degree programs especially gained in popularity in the 1990s and 2000s driven by learners seeking to enter the workforce faster; wishing to minimize costs and student debt; and seeking to free up time to pursue other opportunities like internships or research. Higher education institutions were also responding to incentives to improve their graduation rates and provide greater flexibility to the college experience.


  • In the U.S., institutions such as American University, Bates College, Ball State University, Butler University, Hartwick College, Lake Forest College, Miami University Ohio, Mount Holyoke College, Purdue University, Regis College, Southern Oregon University, University of Iowa, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Iowa, and the University of Tulsa established three-year degree program options. The California State University and State University of New York implemented some three-year pathways. Accelerated medical school programs that confer a bachelor’s and medical degree in six- or seven-years fall are viewed as fast-track paths.
  • In the State of Georgia in the U.S., the nexus degree is less than a four-year bachelor's degree and more than an associate degree. It often is viewed as a three-year degree.
  • The reduced-credit degree program, as described by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), is a program in which the number of credit hours required to complete the program is less than the commonly accepted minimum program length of 120 semester credits.
  • Outside the U.S., examples of colleges and universities offering three-year degrees include the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford in the UK; University of Canterbury in New Zealand; McGill University in Canada; Tilburg University and University of Otago in New Zealand; Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong).

Curriculum Redesign

Redesigning the college curricula to accommodate an accelerated pathway has historically raised questions about the quality and rigor of the shortened degree. However, retaining quality and rigor are addressed in accelerated options through a number of approaches:

  • Eliminating breaks in academic terms (for example, eliminating the common summer break) and offering summer and winter courses.
  • Recognizing more Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and dual enrollment credits.
  • Students are permitted to take a higher course load each academic term to meet degree requirements within the shorter timeframe.
  • Reconsidering the general education core and streamlining general education requirements.
  • Assessing the entire traditional curriculum for points of duplication among course content and redesigning to ensure effective and efficient attention to course content.
  • Allowing students to earn both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in five years, effectively completing the undergraduate portion in three years.

Academic disciplines such as business, political science, economics, and STEM disciplines tend to be common focuses.

Special Project in the U.S.

As described by Nietzel in Forbes (January 2024), the “College in 3 Exchange” project launched in 2021 to invite colleges to reconceive the undergraduate curriculum so the number of required credit hours for the degree would be substantially reduced (sometimes to as low as 90 credit hours) for specific programs. The project is led by Robert Zemsky, Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, and Lori Carrell, Chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Rochester. In 2021, they recruited 13 colleges to think about designing new undergraduate degrees that could be completed in three years:

  • American Public University System
  • Indiana University of Pennsylvania
  • Merrimack College
  • New England College
  • Northwood University
  • Portland State University
  • Slippery Rock University
  • University of Minnesota at Rochester
  • University of North Texas
  • University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
  • University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh
  • Utica College
  • Institution that wished to remain anonymous.

The initial cohort of institutions has grown to 17, and the Exchange receives some support from the Strada Education Foundation to support this effort. another convening to discuss and extend the concept.

Recent developments from this effort include:

  • Brigham Young University-Idaho announcing it would begin offering accredited three-online year degree programs in April 2024 that require between 90 to 96 credit hours instead of the traditional 120 — in Applied Business Management, Information Technology, Applied Health, Professional Studies, Communication, Software Development and Family and Human Services.
  • In December 2023, the American Public University System (APUS) announced it will offer an accelerated Bachelor of Science Degree in Cybersecurity starting in April 2024.
  • Two U.S Senators –Amy Klobuchar and Maggie Hassan – are encouraging colleges to experiment with three-year bachelor’s degrees as a way to make college more affordable and also improve graduation rates. According to Times Higher Education, they have drafted a provision that would give federal approval to three-year degree experiments.


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