When U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander spoke this month  at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, he urged college leaders to offer three-year bachelor's degrees. The concept would cut "one fourth of the time and up to one third of the cost," he said, calling three-year degrees the “higher ed equivalent of a fuel-efficient car,” compared to the traditional “gas guzzling four-year course." Alexander is a Republican with both political and academic experience (he is former president of the University of Tennessee). At another session at the meeting, Richard Celeste said he was interested in the idea of three-year degrees. Celeste, a former Democratic governor of Ohio, is president of Colorado College.
Alexander and Celeste are not alone in their consideration of the idea. Richard Vedder, a Spellings Commission alumnus who leads the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is among the higher ed critics who have embraced the notion of the three-year degree. In a blog posting,  he noted that Thomas Jefferson's two-year program at the College of William and Mary didn't stunt his intellectual growth. "Today, undergraduates seldom finish before 22, and Ph.D.'s seldom receive their degree before the age of 27 or 28.... Colleges have been able to get away with keeping productive resources under their control for longer and longer periods (collecting tuition all the while), despite no demonstrated evidence that this has sizable positive learning effects," he wrote.
Moving away from four-year degrees has been encouraged by Wick Sloane,  one of this Web site's columnists. Also endorsing the idea is the late George Keller, who led the University of Pennsylvania program for the study of higher education and who died in 2007, but not before finishing the essays that make up Higher Education and the New Society,  published last year by Johns Hopkins University Press. In the volume, he made the case for three-year degrees by noting that many students today are more likely to enter college with Advanced Placement credit and to leave with plans for graduate school, somewhat minimizing the need for "depth" in undergraduate programs. Further, he said that the best model to be pushing now -- in light of rising college prices and the proliferation of knowledge -- is one in which college is three years but more emphasis is placed on lifelong learning.
Colleges and universities have an "apparent intransigence" on the issue, he wrote, despite three-year degrees being "a no-brainer."
Are they really a no-brainer?
In fact such a plan has been proposed previously -- and tried in several cases. The idea has also flopped more than it has taken off. Some in higher education believe that circumstances may be right for the idea now, despite previous failures. And one new experiment -- at Manchester College -- appears to be off to a good start. But educators there say that the idea makes sense only for a relatively small subset of students. Still others worry about the rigor or actual cost savings of three year programs.
Until recently, the biggest flurry of attention for the three-year degree came in the early 1990s, when S. Frederick Starr, then the president of Oberlin College, proposed it as a way to deal with college costs. He was widely praised by politicians and pundits for floating the idea. Starr argued that it would save money, and that students would embrace it. Because Starr spoke frequently about the issue, some people assume that the college actually acted on the idea.
In fact, the Oberlin faculty was decidedly unimpressed. One professor wrote a letter  to The New York Times in 1993 to be sure everyone understood: "Lest readers be misled by the news media offensive of S. Frederick Starr ... Oberlin College does not offer a three-year degree. It does not plan to do so, and it does not advocate students trying to finish college in three years. Indeed, even in the midst of a broad strategic planning process initiated by Mr. Starr, we are not discussing such a possibility. The idea seems to be only on Mr. Starr's personal agenda. Perhaps he will pursue it when he leaves Oberlin next June."
Student Interest That Didn't Materialize
Albertus Magnus College, in Connecticut, tried a three-year program for several years in the 1990s, by going from a semester to trimester system, with the idea that students could take courses year round and graduate in three years. The program was halted after most students started skipping a semester a year and very few took advantage of the possibility of graduating in three years.
Upper Iowa University some years ago created a three-year option that remains on the books there. But Linc Morris, vice president of enrollment management, said that no students are currently enrolled in the program and that he doesn't think anyone has tried it for at least three years. Upper Iowa operates on a quarter system in which students typically take two courses a quarter, but spend more time on each course than would be the norm elsewhere. The accelerated option was based on the assumption that some students would be able to get out in three years by adding courses during quarters and taking summer courses.
Because the university charges tuition by credits, students finishing in three years would not have saved money on tuition. But they would have avoided room and board for one year, as well as fees, which are charged by the quarter.
Records at the university show that five students enrolled in the program one year, but that none finished their degrees in three years.
National data suggest that the Upper Iowa and Albertus Magnus students weren't unusual. For example, many proponents of three-year degrees say that the growth of AP programs should make early graduation easy, since more students enter college with college credit. But the College Board has no data to show a correlation between taking AP courses and finishing early. In fact, College Board officials tend to talk about AP these days as a tool to encourage students to graduate on time (four years), not early. Data that the College Board do have show that students who take AP courses have a higher four-year graduation rate than the student body at large. Still, of those who have taken AP courses, only 63 percent graduate within four years, with the rest taking longer or dropping out.
'Fast Forward' at Manchester
Manchester College, in Indiana, is in the first year of a three-year option for students -- billed as a way to save students money and allow them to start earning salaries a year ahead of schedule. Under the Fast Forward  program, selected students who are admitted to the college are given the option of acceleration. These students must take an average of 16 credits a semester (the normal range is 12-16) and take their general education courses online over the summer to finish in three years. Manchester estimates that students can save a total of $25,000 in the program, assuming that they live rent-free at home during the summers. The savings come both from room and board costs for the year they skip, and slightly lower tuition rates that the college charges for summer courses compared to those offered in the academic year.
The college notes that the financial gain can be much more, however, if students land a job a year earlier than they would otherwise.
Fourteen students -- about 4 percent of the freshman class -- are in the program. David F. McFadden, executive vice president at Manchester, said the college is pleased with the response and doesn't anticipate the program ever becoming standard for everyone. Because students must apply to the college for four years -- and then be identified as having potential for Fast Forward -- the college has a lot of control over who receives the opportunity. McFadden said that the ideal students not only are well prepared and disciplined academically, but generally need to have a good sense of their college goals coming in.
For some majors, he said, requirements are such that students need to be taking specific courses from their first semester at the campus. "They really need to know what their majors are going to be," he said.
McFadden said that some of those attending information sessions for potential applicants at Manchester this year said that they were attracted by the program. But he said that he thinks the college's approach of offering the three-year option only after acceptance is a good one for identifying the right students. "Not that many students think about this in a concrete enough way to come to college saying 'This is what I want to do,' " he said.
The students in the program have "very specific interests," and they did well academically in their first semester. He stressed that Manchester still believes that, for many students, colleges is "a place to come and know more of what's possible," and four years may be quite appropriate for that quest.
McFadden said students in the three-year program may also gain something because of the need to work closely with professors on planning their course selections with precision. He said he had just spoken with a student at another college who had been on track to graduate in four years, but who had missed some requirements for his major, and had quickly seen a four-year degree become a five-year degree, and that extra year was going to add significantly to the student's debt. A three-year program, McFadden said, "allows fewer missteps" than a four-year degree, and will force students to be "more focused and deliberate." As a result, he said he thinks people starting three-year programs and following appropriate advice may end up with higher completion rates than those who plan to finish in four.
Mercedes Plummer, who is in the first year of the Manchester program, is working toward an education degree so she can teach physical education and become a coach for elementary or middle school children. She said that since has a specific education and career goal, she isn't worried about the focus. Saving money was the attraction of the program, she said. She'll borrow modestly to pay for the three years of costs. But the $25,000 she's saving would all have been additional loans that she will now avoid.
Because the summer learning is online and asynchronous, Plummer said that it will not force her to miss everything she would have done during the summer -- she plans to hold a part-time job. "I don't have to stay on campus," she said. While some of her friends question her choice, saying she'll miss the "experience" of four years of college, Plummer said that graduating with less debt is plenty of compensation for that. "I know what I want to do," she said.
At Manchester, and most of the programs attempted to date, colleges have clung to 120 credits (the standard for a bachelor's degree) and sought ways for students to reach that level in three years. Some educators think that the 120 figure should be a little less sacred, and that this will lead to programs that can be completed in less than four years.
Leslie E. Wong, president of Northern Michigan University, said he believes that some college degrees could be earned in as few as 100 credits -- if well chosen -- rather than 120 credits. In such cases, he said, colleges would need to make general education "more focused" than is typically the case today. Further, he questioned whether colleges hesitate to award full credit for intense educational experiences, such as study abroad. "If someone goes away for two semesters, why don't we give extra credits, given that good study abroad is so powerful an experience?" he said.
The idea is not just to shorten education, Wong said, but to make college completion more realistic for those with limited funds or adult learners with limited time. What, he asked, is so special about 120 credits?
Wong acknowledged that some might assume a loss of knowledge or skills for those graduating with just 100 credits. And he noted that the requirements of some majors and pre-professional programs might make 100 credits impossible for some students. But he said that he would like to see colleges have the flexibility to experiment with 100 credits, and at the same time have measures so students could demonstrate their learning.
Suppose, he said, that graduation was linked to completion of an electronic portfolio in which a student demonstrated knowledge and skills, and that such portfolios could be presented at 100 credits, not just at 120. To those wanting to judge students reaching the two credit levels, "the proof would be in the pudding," he said.
While many educators assume that they must offer 120 credits in a bachelor's programs, that rule isn't ironclad. Some accreditors require 120 credits, and many specialized accreditors require so many credits that, when combined with institutional requirements, 120 credits are necessary. But the Education Department's definition of a bachelor's degree doesn't specify credits. Instead it defines bachelor's degree this way: "An award (baccalaureate or equivalent degree, as determined by the Secretary, U.S. Department of Education) that normally requires at least four but not more than five years of full-time equivalent college-level work.... Also includes bachelor's degrees in which the normal four years of work are completed in three years."
Looking for Evidence
The question of proof of knowledge is central to the success of any venture in three-year degrees, said Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy who has been studying European higher education -- in which three year bachelor's degrees have become the standard through the "Bologna Process," which has set common standards for participating countries. But Adelman said that the key to understanding the European degrees is that they are accompanied by specific learning outcomes and by statements of what the degree qualifies a holder to do. These continent-wide standards are quite different from anything in the United States for three or four years of undergraduate study.
"What makes the Bologna degree what it is is that it's got learning outcomes," Adelman said. "If all you are going to do is tell me that instead of 120 credits, you have 90 credits, that's just a useless piece of paper," he said.
Adelman also questioned whether the focus on three years would help the students most in need of help. The three-year model is based on full-time enrollment, he noted. The population growing more quickly -- and more in need of additional institutional support -- is made up of part-time students, he said. Colleges should focus on their needs, even if they will take much longer than traditional students to graduate. "Life is not necessarily an easy road to a bachelor's degree," he said. Most students can't take a full-time course load, let alone more, Adelman added. "If you want to improve graduation rates, three-year degrees are counterproductive."
He characterized the push for three years as coming from those whose ideas about higher ed amount to: "get it over with and get it over with fast."
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he also worried that the European three-year degrees were not an appropriate model for the United States. A more common high school curriculum and limited expectations about general education, he said, are key to the three-year approach.
Nassirian suggested that if three-year degrees are created simply by squeezing more content into shorter time periods, "I'm actually skeptical that you would save much money." Further, he said, while efficiency and economy are important values, they aren't the only values that matter.
"There's no question that the way we do it has all kinds of avoidable inefficiencies. I'm not suggesting that what we have is perfect," Nassirian said. "But it's very important to be upfront with people and explain the trade-offs" of trying to finish college in three years instead of four. "You wouldn't be able to go from physics to philosophy or philosophy to physics," he said.
And without agreed upon standards for program content, he said, there is a risk that three-year programs could just be less time and less substance. "There's nothing wrong with ramping up programs, but the absence of metrics creates the problem," he said. While it is a satirical example, he admitted, Nassirian said the focus on cutting a year reminded him of the comedian Father Guido Sarducci's sketch on his plans to create the "Five Minute University"  -- in which students would learn in five minutes "what the average college graduate remembers" five years after graduation. The cost is $20, which covers tuition, cap and gown rental, and snacks.