WHEN Michael Bastedo graduates from Oberlin College in Ohio this May, he knows he will have gotten a bargain.
Although he spent only three years in college, Mr. Bastedo will end up with the same degree as his classmates who pay for four years of tuition.
``College is a very big expense, so we wanted to make it as easy [financially] as possible,'' Bastedo says. ``Just in loans alone, I'm saving more than $4,000.'' In addition, Bastedo expects to be earning a salary next year while his classmates are continuing to gather debt.
Across the nation, students, parents, and some college administrators are showing an increased interest in three-year college degrees. A national survey taken last year by George Dehne & Associates of New York found that 77 percent of high school students said they would choose a college that offered a bachelor's degree in three years instead of the traditional four.
Although it has always been possible to finish college early by doubling up on courses or attending summer school, a growing number of institutions are setting up specific programs for three-year degrees.
Savings only one factor
Last month, Middlebury College, a selective private school in Middlebury, Vt., announced that it will offer a three-year Bachelor of Arts degree beginning in 1995. Students enrolling in the program would save between $15,000 and $20,000.
Yet cost savings was only one factor motivating administrators to introduce the program, says Middlebury's president John McCardell. The college is challenging the notion that ``there's something magical about 13-week terms with meetings three hours each week and a final examination at the end,'' President McCardell says.
Middlebury's program is expected to start small with 10 to 20 students and will be limited to students in the ``international major'' which emphasizes international relations, foreign languages, and study abroad.
Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn., and Drury College in Springfield, Mo., are among the handful of schools that already have formal three-year programs in place. Several state university systems, such as the State University of New York, are seriously considering the idea.
Clark University in Worcester, Mass., allows students to graduate in three years and has just introduced another cost-cutting plan: Four-year students are offered a fifth year of education tuition-free, allowing them to earn a master's degree for the price of a bachelor's. ``We agree with the effort to be conscious of family financial constraints in the three-year degree programs,'' says Clark University provost Roger Kasperson, ``but we decided to approach the problem by focusing on adding value at the same cost.''
Stavros Kokkoris is a computer science major at Clark University who plans to graduate this May after three years in college. ``I won't have to lose a year of my life this way,'' he says. ``I am now 21 years old and there are so many things I want to do.''
The recent discussion about a three-year baccalaureate can be traced to a 1991 New York Times opinion piece by S. Frederick Starr, the president of Oberlin College. ``The first wave of reaction from institutions was negative,'' President Starr says. ``It meant change. At many schools, you could work it out [to earn a degree in three years], but it was really bucking the system. There was no advising; it wasn't in the catalog. It was almost as if the college didn't want to lose your tuition.''
But in the past year there's been a shift in attitudes among many administrators, Starr says. ``I'm very pleased to see that it is giving rise to substantive debate about the nature of higher education,'' he says. ``It has evolved into a broader concern for accelerating the degree.'' Starr expects that before long the three-year degree ``will become a normal channel which various students will take for diverse reasons.''
But some educators dispute that idea. Vartan Gregorian, the president of Brown University in Providence, R.I., has said that the overall increase in knowledge and the poor preparation of high school graduates suggests that a five-year degree actually makes more sense than a three- or four-year degree.
At the same time, more and more high school graduates are underprepared for higher education. One-third of all college freshman require some remedial education. And 1990 US Census data show that nearly half of all students take more than four years to earn their undergraduate degrees. Only 8 percent of students take less than four years.
``Four years is fiction, and three years is just lack of reality for many students,'' says Arthur Levine, a senior lecturer on education at Harvard University.
Budget cuts at some state universities make it harder for students to get into oversubscribed courses in time to graduate in four years. Ironically, spiraling tuition costs also work against three-year degrees for the poorest students who must work part-time.
``They're working to pay for college each year,'' Dr. Levine says. ``If you cut it to three years and intensify the program so that they have to go year-round, many students won't have enough money to pay for it.''
Some educators worry that widespread three-year degrees will dilute the experience and shortchange students. Lawrence Bryan, president of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, says three-year degrees can make sense for the ``exceptional, truly outstanding, highly prepared'' student. ``What I'm concerned about,'' he says, ``is a movement that I sense toward a standard offering of a three-year baccalaureate.''
President Bryan says such a move would jeopardize a quality liberal-arts education. ``If it were the same educational opportunity at one-fourth less the cost, it sure would be a deal,'' he says. ``I am not convinced that it is the same opportunity, however.''
Bastedo, the Oberlin student who is graduating after three years, acknowledges that there are trade-offs involved. ``Educationally, it's not as sound,'' he says. ``There are things that I'm missing that other people get to do in that extra year. But I weighed the financial costs and educational benefits and decided to do it in three years.''
One concern Bastedo has about a more widely accepted three-year degree is the effect on students who receive more financial aid. ``I worry that students who are on financial aid would be pushed to finish in three years while wealthy students could afford to do it in four,'' he says.
But even strong advocates such as Oberlin's president, Starr, are not arguing that everyone should complete college in three years. ``One of the benefits of what's going on,'' Starr says, ``is that it's broadening the gene pool of American higher education. It's stimulating genuine change.''
In the end, a new openness and willingness to change may be the largest legacy of the current debate over the three-year degree. ``Three years is as arbitrary as four years,'' Levine says. ``The larger question for higher education becomes not how do we cut the degree to three years, but how do we focus on a common set of outcomes and variable lengths of time to get there.''