What was a year ago an emerging idea  about how to reduce college costs and better serve students has begun to take hold at colleges across the United States, as more institutions introduce three-year bachelor’s degrees.
On Wednesday, Stanley Ikenberry, interim president of the University of Illinois, said that the university had begun studying  whether it would make sense to offer three-year bachelor’s degrees and would release a report in six months. In just the past month, Arcadia University, Holy Family University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and, in partnership, Georgia Perimeter College and Georgia Southwestern State University have all introduced formal three-year programs that will begin this fall.
Concerns about ever-rising college costs, which have been only compounded by the prolonged recession, and the Bologna Process’s success in standardizing three-year , competency-based bachelor’s degrees throughout Europe have helped to amplify the drumbeat that has played in the background for decades. Despite the surge in interest in and introduction of these programs, some experts are critical, arguing that students may miss out on key experiences, and wondering whether many students will be able to finish their degrees in three years.
Students have long been able to take heavier course loads, summer classes or use Advanced Placement or other pre-matriculation credits to graduate in less than four years. Maine’s Bates College and Alabama’s Judson College, among others, have for decades actively offered applicants and students guided paths toward earning their bachelor’s degrees in three years, though relatively few students take that route. But economic and geopolitical realities -- and the vocal opinions of several prominent higher education thinkers -- have helped the three-year degree gain traction.
The highest-profile proponent has been Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who served as U.S. secretary of education from 1991 to 1993. In a speech at the February 2009 meeting of the American Council on Education, he described shorter degrees  as the “higher ed equivalent of a fuel-efficient car,” a less time-consuming and expensive option than a “gas guzzling four-year course.” In October, Newsweek published a column  by Alexander that brought the issue into thousands of living rooms.
Among the idea’s other supporters: the late George Keller, who was a professor of higher education studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education; Robert Zemsky,  also of Penn; and Richard K. Vedder, an Ohio University economist who was on former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
The three-year degree is not without its detractors. Alexander C. McCormick, director of the Indiana University-based National Survey of Student Engagement, said “it would be nice if institutions actually provided four-year degrees … before we think about accelerating.” According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the four-year graduation rate for first-time undergraduate who began their bachelor’s degrees in 2000-01 was 36.1 percent. The six-year rate was 57.5 percent.
Nonetheless, colleges have begun to embrace the three-year option. Besides the institutions that have made announcements this spring, the University of Houston-Victoria, the University of Washington, Lipscomb University  and a few others have introduced three-year degrees in the last year or so.
Trustees at Arcadia, in the Philadelphia suburb of Glenside, voted March 5 to begin offering three-year degree sequences next fall. “We’ve been thinking about affordability issues for some time even before the downturn of the economy,” said Jerry Greiner, the university’s president. “More administrators wanted to think about it after the downturn and we quickly got a number of faculty members interested in pursuing that kind of program.”
The requirements for an accelerated degree are identical to those needed to earn a four-year Arcadia bachelor’s; they are simply condensed into less time. Admission will be limited to what Greiner called “high ability students,” who must maintain a 3.0 G.P.A. to remain in the program.
Students will take a heavier course load each semester and spend the summers of the program fulfilling other degree requirements: a service project and a major-related internship, perhaps outside the United States. Offerings will start with five majors -- business administration, communications, international business and culture, international studies, and psychology -- whose course sequences have been mapped out to ensure that students will be able to fulfill all requirements in the abbreviated time to degree.
Though next fall’s freshmen applied without knowing that the three-year course of study would be an option, Greiner said he’s heard interest since the trustees’ vote from a few admitted students, who’ve been notified of the program because of their expressed interest in its five majors or who are among the university’s top admits. For this year, he said, “we anticipate that this will increase our yield among these populations of students.” Next fall, he expects it will draw applicants who might not have otherwise considered Arcadia.
Interest at Hartwick
Hartwick College, in Oneonta, N.Y., is already seeing substantial interest from applicants since beginning its three-year program last fall. Twenty percent of applicants for fall 2010 expressed interest on their application forms. In the current freshman class, 18 students in a class of 400 have joined the program, which requires a minimum high school G.P.A. of 3.0. Instead of taking 12 to 15 credits each semester, students in the program take 15 to 18 credits, plus classes during the college’s January term. Twenty-four of the college’s 31 majors have opted to participate.
Margaret Drugovich, the college’s president and a former enrollment officer, said that the idea for the program emerged years ago as an attempt to make a Hartwick degree more affordable. “Parents would tell me they wanted the kind of education that Hartwick provides but that they simply couldn’t afford it.” Tuition for the current academic year is $32,550, and room, board and fees total close to $10,000.
But students aren’t choosing the option only for financial reasons. “It’s clear that students who are very focused and really have some graduate school aspirations are really going to be attracted to this option,” she said.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro began its “UNCG in 3” program  in February in response from an increasing number of “questions from students who wanted to go through an accelerated process,” said Steve Roberson, dean of undergraduate studies. Only students who enter with a minimum of 12 college credits are eligible to join.
Price and time are concerns, but so too is the fact that a shorter degree gets students into the full-time work force sooner. “They’re getting the earning power of the fourth year … like when a high school or college sports player decides to become a professional before graduating,” he said, which will be especially attractive to older students. “We think this will appeal to military folks, who are very serious and very dedicated and might want to do this in three years."
McCormick, of NSSE, expressed concerns that abbreviating the time to degree by saddling students with heavier course loads and forcing them to give up breaks might lead to "sacrifices in the sort of informal learning experiences" that happen in extracurricular activities and dormitories. At institutions where study abroad isn't a graduation requirement, he said, students would probably have to stay on campus throughout their undergraduate careers, giving up what is "for a lot of students recognized as a high-impact practice."
Even so, McCormick said he thinks that three years of full-time study could be preferable to four or more years spent commuting, working part time or taking classes online. Despite needing to take a heavier course load, students who spend "three years full time on campus may still be better off in terms of their opportunities to connect informally with other students and be involved with other opportunities."
To Carol Geary Schneider, president of Association of American Colleges and Universities, the degrees are a distraction. In an article to be published in the forthcoming issue of the association’s journal, she blasts three-year degrees as part of a “new crop of faux reforms that, if adopted, would send us backward.”
By focusing on relatively high-performing students, colleges have the potential to forget about those who can’t graduate in four, five or even six years. At Hartwick and UNCG, students in the accelerated programs get course registration priority over more senior students. A freshman in one of these programs could nose out a senior in registering for a course that the senior needs to graduate
Large numbers of students who enter college never complete their degrees and “the majority of graduates are far from prepared for the challenges of either the economy or our democracy,” Schneider wrote, suggesting that students need more time in college, not less. “By every possible measure -- outcomes studies, employer assessments, faculty reports and proficiency levels on standardized tests -- too many students already are falling short.”