When Samantha Chapman chose to go to Manchester College last year, there was one big deciding factor: The Indiana school had a new program that would let her speed to a bachelor's degree in just three years, saving her family about $10,000.
For years, the amount of time it takes to earn a bachelor's degree has been going up: less than one-third of students at four-year colleges graduate within four years, Education Department data show. But now, a growing number of residential colleges and universities have begun offering accelerated three-year degrees. In the past 15 months alone, at least a dozen schools have rolled out three-year programs including the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.
The programs are a drawing card for the driven, high-achieving students every college wants. Most screen out applicants unlikely to succeed on a fast track and dangle carrots to lure those who can, offering not only cost savings but coveted priority-registration privileges and special advisors.
The programs can be arduous. Some require a heavy workload or year-round studies. They also often require students to choose a major during their freshman year and then stick to it—something many 18-year-olds may find difficult. Many programs reduce the time students have to dabble in extracurricular activities or explore subjects unrelated to their majors. At Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, which has offered a three-year degree program since 1965, the 1968 campus yearbook labeled it "an academic endurance race."
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And many kids end up slowing down. At Florida State University, which launched a three-year program in 2000, about 40% of three-year enrollees wind up staying four years, to add another major, study abroad or take part in student government, says Linda Mahler, the program's director. After arriving on campus, "they decided they weren't in a big hurry" after all, she says.
While enrollments are small so far, the three-year programs are generating a lot of interest. Hartwick, which announced its program last year, expects to enroll twice as many freshmen as expected, or about 75 to 100 of an incoming class of 450 to 500, says Margaret Drugovich, president. The University of North Carolina, Greensboro, which announced its program in February, has 319 inquiries among an entering freshman class of 2,500, says Steve Roberson, dean of undergraduate studies. Enrollment in Florida State's program rose 73% to 123 last fall from 71 in 2007.
To Theresa Arnold, Southern Oregon University's offer of a three-year degree was comparable to an $18,000 scholarship. Her daughter LisaMarie Williams, 20 and in her second year as a criminal-justice major at the Ashland, Ore., university, says the fast track is a good fit. "I was always driven," she says. And with two younger children to also put through college, Ms. Arnold says, "this is going to help us a lot."
Of course, students have always been able to choose to cram their degrees into three years; less than 3% of students do so, Education Department data show. What is new about the three-year programs is that they offer a structured path, support and trained advisers to help.
State governments are spurring the development of three-year programs, responding to voter frustration over rising college costs. Rhode Island has mandated development of three-year programs by its state universities; lawmakers in Pennsylvania are weighing a related measure. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is urging more schools to follow suit, and higher-education officials in California, Arizona and Illinois are studying the idea.
Students in the new programs still must earn the same number of credits for a bachelor's degree as those with a typical four-year schedule. The programs typically cost less partly because they eliminate nine months' room-and-board, plus the cost of some extra courses. (Students usually stick to only the courses they need to graduate.) The summer-school studies required by some of the programs are often cheaper, too.
Many students begin the programs with college credit already, having earned it via advanced-placement classes or other programs in high school. Many of the schools still manage to squeeze internships or study abroad into the three-year programs. But certain majors are usually excluded. Performing arts students, for example, usually must stay at least four years to get studio and performance experience. Engineering students must take courses in sequence, typically requiring them to stay more than three years.
The programs are enabling some students to get a jump on graduate school. Ms. Chapman at Manchester wants to go to law school, and she is eager to get there a year sooner. Even though she will have to take two courses online this summer in addition to working her usual job at a greeting-card shop, "this is where I want to be," she says. The three-year program "is working out perfectly for me."
Others believe finishing a degree in three years will burnish their credentials, making them more competitive when they try to land a job or apply to grad school. Tien Ngo, 18, a student in a three-year program at Lipscomb University, Nashville, says he wants to show medical schools "that I have the self-motivation to succeed." He will, however, have to cut back on the volunteer work he usually does to take summer courses. "I do feel pressured, but that's just the nature of the beast," he says.
One of the benefits of the three-year-programs is that they often offer priority registration, allowing students first crack at signing up for classes. This is a big deal particularly at big public universities, where some students end up staying longer than four years simply because they can't snare slots in the crowded classes they need for graduation. Ms. Williams, for example, believes that if she had attended a public university in her home state of California, it would have taken her five years to get into and complete all the classes she needed to graduate, she says.
The pace of a three-year degree can be demanding. Carmen Lookshire, 19, signed on at Hartwick last year. Her older brother and mother were already enrolled in college and she knew the $17,000 savings—about one year's cost, after financial aid—would help her family. To finish in three years, she must consistently take about 18 credits a semester, above the average of about 15, and she must enroll during Hartwick's additional short January term. Although Ms. Lookshire loves acting and once played Gabriella in "High School Musical," she bypassed auditioning for the campus musical. "I knew it would be very time-consuming, and I need to focus on my schoolwork," she says. She has taken performing arts classes instead, and found time to join a couple of clubs.
Her mother, Noreen Lookshire, in Albany, N.Y., worries about overload. "What if she burns out with all these credits?" she asked a Hartwick adviser, who assured her that Carmen could handle it. She also is concerned that Carmen won't graduate with her entering class.
Carmen acknowledges that getting it all done requires "a lot of time management." She keeps her schedule carefully mapped out on a whiteboard. But she is delighted to be leaping from freshman to junior status next fall. "I feel ready," she says. An art history major with hopes of getting a master's degree and becoming a museum curator, she adds, "I hope graduate schools will look at that and say, 'Look, she challenged herself."'
Getting a Degree in Three
Samantha Chapman, a student at Manchester College, is enrolled in a program to earn a bachelor's degree in three years. Here is how her experience compares to that of a student in a typical four-year program: