June 24, 2012 -- A 25 percent tuition break first offered three years ago by Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., paid off this spring for a dozen new graduates. All they had to do was squeeze four years of study into three.
Hartwick, a small private liberal arts college, is at the forefront of a recent upswing in colleges that, spurred by the recession and concerns over crushing college debt, are encouraging students to save money by shortening the time it takes to earn a degree. This fall, three-year degrees will be an option at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Minnesota State University in Mankato plans to make them available in 2013. Missouri's Office of Economic Development is reviewing applications for grants to offer three-year bachelor's degrees this fall in high-demand fields such as health care and information technology.
The initiatives are aimed mostly at highly motivated students, such as 2012 Hartwick grad Samantha Hart, who earned 23 college credits while in high school and took heavier course loads while in college. "I saved a lot of money, and I got to do everything that I wanted to," says Hart, 21, who is about to start an internship that she has been told could lead to a job.
Yet for all its pocketbook appeal, the three-year concept hasn't taken off, particularly at public universities. Legislation in Rhode Island in 2009 and Washington last year encourages public universities to develop three-year options, but no programs have been proposed to date, officials in both states say. State budget challenges have pushed a University of California committee's recommendation to a back burner, says system spokesman Steve Montiel.
At Ohio State University, which must phase in three-year degrees beginning this fall, provost Joe Alutto says a three-year degree may be "misdirected for an institution such as ours." He told legislators last year that students who earned college credit in high school tend to add a minor or second major rather than graduate early.
Some skeptics worry about quality. "It's as if they put students on a conveyer belt and just speed them up and spray them with a fire hose and the students catch what they can," Southern New Hampshire University professor Marty Bradley says of models that compress four years into three. He pioneered a three-year degree on his campus in 1997 that required an overhaul of the curriculum.
Some education groups argue that resources, particularly at public institutions, should focus on students who are most at risk of dropping out. A study of 33 states by the non-profit Complete College America found that just 26 percent of students enrolled at public institutions earn a bachelor's in four years; 54.3 percent take six years. About 2 percent of students earning a bachelor's in 2007-08 did so in three years, federal data show. Hartwick's four-year graduation rate in recent years averages about 46 percent.
"Time is the enemy of college completion, but Getting more of our best students to finish their bachelor's degrees a year early won't be enough" to raise the nation's overall graduation rate, says Complete College America president Stan Jones. "We must ensure that more finish college on time: a four-year degree in four years, not five or six."
Wesleyan President Michael Roth says the three-year option ought to be available to students who want it. "Four years is just a habit," he says. "It isn't some magical number."