The idea of offering a traditional bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four has never really caught on, at least in the United States, but it might be gaining traction with the economy in deep recession.
On Feb. 24, Hartwick College, a liberal arts school in Oneonta, N.Y., became perhaps the most high-profile school yet to announce it would offer a broad range of students the opportunity to finish a bachelor’s degree in three years, saving a full year of tuition and fees (which run $42,705 there this year).
It’s probably not a solution to the national problem of surging college costs. Many faculty members undoubtedly would object and worry about standards. And at large public universities, it’s already hard enough to get into all the classes you need. Sometimes students are lucky to get through in five years.
Still, the economic troubles seem to have generated more buzz around the idea.
At the American Council on Education’s annual meeting earlier this month, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and a former university president, pressed college presidents to offer three-year degrees. In Rhode Island, legislators are considering a bill that would create a standard set of college-level classes for high schools, so all students could have an opportunity to finish college in three years.
Three years is the norm for undergraduate degrees in Europe, and a handful of U.S. colleges offer variants of a three-year program, including Judson College in Alabama, Manchester College in Indiana, and Seattle University. Others, such as Bates College in Maine, offer highly qualified students some three-year options.
And of course, at many schools, students with a large number of Advanced Placement credits may be able to graduate early.
Still, the idea has hardly caught fire, despite rising college costs. Students seem to like spending at least four years in college.
When Upper Iowa University offered the option a few years ago, just five students took it–but all decided to stay four years after all. Nobody has signed up since.
A three-year degree "would be attractive to someone who knows right now what they want to do with the rest of their lives," said Lincoln Morris, Upper Iowa’s vice president for enrollment management. "Most students don’t have it all figured out right now, and that’s fine."
Also in Iowa, Waldorf College has graduated several hundred in three-year programs over the years, but is now phasing out its last one. Most students wanted the full four-year experience–academically, socially, athletically.
"What we’re finding they’re saying is, ‘Why did I want to grow up so fast?’" said spokeswoman Joy Newcom.
Hartwick says its program is distinctive, because it won’t require online courses or summer school (so students can still do internships). Students will take an expanded course load each semester, plus courses during Hartwick’s January term. Only a handful of majors are excluded.
President Margaret Drugovich emphasized that students still have the four-year option. She isn’t sure how many will sign up. But as a parent, she thinks it will resonate.
"She’s planning to go to medical school, she’s got a long educational horizon in front of her," she said of her daughter, who attends another college. "It’s something I’d recommend she look at, if it were available."