Want to save $50,000? Try a three-year college degree.

With costs soaring, some colleges offer students a way to graduate early with a three-year college degree. But critics say students lose out on gaining breadth of experience.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Undergraduate business students build a house of cards during a class exercise at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. All are participants in a three-year college degree program that will let them earn their degrees sooner.

Carmen Lookshire is halfway through her first year of college, but she already has her studies mapped out – and is looking at graduation in just two more years.

The art history major is one of the first students to take advantage of the new three-year college degree at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. – part of a growing number of such programs designed to help students shave tuition costs and get to the job market or graduate school faster.

"It saves a year of tuition, and that's always a good thing," says Ms. Lookshire, who will be taking out loans to help with the $45,000 yearly bill. "But it's also a good challenge. I knew going into the program that I want to attend grad school, and I thought it was a good way to show the schools I'd like to go to that I was committed."

Students always have had the option of finishing their degrees faster if they accumulate enough credits. And many more take five or six years to get through a four-year program. But recently, the idea of a structured three-year degree has gained traction, due in part to spiraling college costs and the struggling economy.

The few schools to offer one so far have made it an optional program for very driven students, with the same requirements as a standard degree. But some educators also question why the four-year, 120-credit model has to be the norm (unlike in Europe, where the standard is often three years).

"We have an undergraduate curriculum that is in need of pruning, reengineering, and clearing out the rubble," says Robert Zemsky, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. "From an educational point of view, I think it would be a stronger curriculum. From a financial viewpoint, it would save families 25 percent."

While almost everyone agrees that soaring costs are a problem, many educators push back against anything that would pare down the college experience, arguing that the strength of the US system – particularly with liberal arts schools – is its emphasis on a broad-based education, along with the ability it gives students to explore new subjects, mature, and gain meaningful experiences in the classroom and on campus.

"I don't think our society suffers from overeducation. It suffers from undereducation," says Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University and a former assistant secretary of Education. About one-third of college freshmen enter in need of remediation, she notes, and spend their first year catching up.

Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard University, adds that trimming would most likely mean cutting "general education" courses already overburdened with the task of teaching students to write and speak. He envisions a higher-education landscape in which a few elite schools would continue to offer four-year programs while others cut back to three – and begin to resemble vocational schools.

"Whether the savings from a three-year college would be worth the sacrifices is a value judgment," Dr. Bok wrote in an e-mail. "But those of us who believe deeply in a well-rounded education as the best preparation for a full life will clearly regard this change as a long step backward."

While a broad shift in graduation requirements doesn't seem imminent, many more schools are offering formal support to students who do an accelerated program.

Bates College, Franklin & Marshall College, Lipscomb University, Manchester College, and Southern New Hampshire University are among those offering three-year programs. Rhode Island lawmakers have approved a bill that requires all state schools to create a three-year bachelor's program by this fall.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is also considering an "accelerated" three-year program for students, meant to save them money. This, no doubt, in response to student protests about tuition hikes at the state university.

"It's an idea that's been around for many years in the background," says Roland King, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "Once we got into seriously looking at dropping the cost of a college education with the economic downturn, it's moved to the forefront."

The idea got an added jolt last year from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, a former Education secretary, when he compared a three-year degree to fuel-efficient cars that outcompeted gas guzzlers.

Not all students want it. Bates's program has existed for nearly 45 years, but few students take advantage of it: just 34 over the past 10 years. At Hartwick, however, 22 percent of this year's applicants expressed interest in the quicker degree.

Margaret Drugovich, Hartwick's president, says she launched the program after seeing the number of families who wanted a liberal arts education but couldn't afford the high costs. Students take an extra course each semester, get preferred registration, and are required to take a course during the school's optional January term. Study abroad is still possible – often during that "J-term" – and advisers help students fill all their requirements. "It's a student-by-student thing," she says, noting the option works best for students who are more organized and mature.

Those who choose to graduate early sometimes have mixed feelings. Ryan Schwartz, a media relations specialist in Austin, Texas, graduated from Stanford University in 2006 in just under three years, due in part to AP credits from high school. "At the time, I was really excited. I was ready to get out into the real world ... and Stanford was ridiculously expensive," says Mr. Schwartz. But he's come to regret some of what he missed: senior year with his friends, extra classes that interested him, a final research project and thesis. "College gives an opportunity for you to really expand on your vision for your life. By finishing in such a short time, you miss out on widening your horizons."

Still, Mr. Zemsky points out, only a few students are looking for a liberal arts experience. Others agree that changes are worth at least investigating. "I don't think there's any magic in 120 credit hours," says William McKinney, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Indiana University-Purdue in Fort Wayne. "The concern I have is that we're letting [the issue] of cost drive the conversation."

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