Some of the first students to enroll in UNCG in 3, a unique degree acceleration program, are about to graduate, armed with the same four-year degree as their peers  — only they earned their degree in three years or less.

The first cohort began their UNCG careers in the fall of 2010, enrolling in a program designed to let students take full advantage of college credits earned while in high school. The university-wide accelerated degree program is the only one of its kind in the UNC System.

One member of the first group of students, Kimberly Daye, finished her degree in 2.5 years and graduated in December. Another will don cap and gown for UNCG’s Spring Commencement on May 10.

“Today, a college degree is more important than ever,” said Steve Moore, director of transfer and adult student academic success at UNCG who works closely with UNCG in 3 students.  “Most employers are starved for talented employees. UNCG in 3 allows some of the most talented young people in North Carolina to enter college and graduate early.”

In the years since the program’s launch, UNCG in 3 has experienced significant growth. Twenty-five students enrolled in the fall of 2011; 62 students joined the program last fall. And “it looks like we’ll get even more next year,” said Camy Sorge, assistant director of transfer and adult academic success who also works closely with UNCG in 3 students.

Part of the program’s growing popularity stems from the rise and success of early and middle colleges in North Carolina, Sorge said. When UNCG officials launched the program, they anticipated most students would come to campus with 10-20 credit hours earned by taking Advanced Placement classes or through International Baccalaureate programs. But with the increase of early and middle college programs in North Carolina — and the university’s success in recruiting them into the UNCG in 3 program — the average student brings 24-30 hours of college credit with them when they enroll in the university. Some enroll with as many as 40 credit hours.

“With the huge number of early and middle colleges across North Carolina, the UNCG in 3 program is a perfect fit for them,” Sorge said.  “A lot of those students can graduate in 2.5 years, or they’re doing the program in three years, but they’re able to do double majors or add in some minors.”

Of the 62 students who started the program last year, 43 of them graduated from an early or middle college, Sorge said. There are 75 early or middle colleges in North Carolina. Guilford County has nine, including the Middle College at UNCG, which focuses on health sciences.

Enrolling in college with an abundance of credits allows students to have the full college experience while still finishing their four-year degree at an accelerated pace.

“We don’t want students to take 18 hours a semester and do nothing else,” Sorge said. “The world has changed. It’s important to have other experiences on that resume before you go out into the world. Skipping things like internships isn’t something that you want to do. We have people who are studying abroad right now, who are in learning communities, who are in the honors college, people doing internships and people who are working over the summer instead of taking classes. It’s very rare when we have someone who feels like they can’t do it all.”

Students in the program give high marks to the dedicated student advisor and the priority registration schedule, benefits that help them stay on track to graduate early.

“My experience so far has been great,” said Shannon Johnson, a junior business major who is finishing her second year at UNCG. “Just because I’m moving at a faster pace than everyone doesn’t mean I’m missing anything. I’ve been to most sporting events, parties, CAB (Campus Activities Board) events, and still been able to get my work done for classes. This program doesn’t make you lose your social life, it just shows you a way to prioritize. What I like most about the program is, of course, saving money, but I also like that I get to register for classes before everyone. There’s no reason for me to worry about a class that I need being full.”

The accelerated pace to college graduation saves students and their families about $8,000 a year in tuition and fees — and puts them on the fast track to achieving their personal and career goals.

“This program has allowed me to finish my degree faster, so that I can began working in a field that concentrates on work experience with clients,” said Elyssa Tucker, a senior psychology major. “Not only that, I saved a full year of tuition and fees which will definitely help me in the long run. This program has been time sensitive to my goals and allowed me more opportunities for my future.”