The recent proliferation of three-year degrees has heightened interest in accelerated study among college freshmen. But enthusiasm tends to peter out.
“A lot of students are interested in it,” said Dave McFadden, executive vice president of Manchester College. “A smaller number of students sign up for it, and an even smaller number finish it.”
Lake Forest, in the Chicago suburbs, promoted its program as a money-saver for students and parents. “We just really didn’t have any takers,” said Janet McCracken, dean of the faculty.
The three-year degree may not gain traction until it becomes standard in a large state university system, said Robert Zemsky, a higher education scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Initiatives in Ohio and Rhode Island have not borne fruit.
Or, the accelerated BA may be subsumed within a more ambitious goal: accelerated graduate study. Several universities in the Washington region have introduced accelerated master’s and doctoral degrees. Some schools combine those degrees with undergraduate study to deliver, say, a bachelor and master’s degree in four or five years, rather than the customary six.
Completing a bachelor’s degree in three years typically means amassing 120 credit hours in three-quarters of the time. Accelerated programs often require students to take brief but intense winter terms or to complete coursework in summer online. Some accept only students who completed college credits in high school.
There’s little wiggle room for students to change majors or load up on electives. Accelerated programs leave less time for athletics, clubs and social life. They also leave little time for employment, and that could be a problem for some of the students who would benefit most from a discounted education.
“If you try to do it in three years, your options are limited,” said Candace Evilsizor, 17, a rising freshman from Phoenix who plans to enroll in the three-year program at American University.
Evilsizor likes the idea of accelerated study. But, as a Global Scholar, she also wants to see the globe. In a three-year program, she might not have time.
“They say you can study abroad for a summer. But I want to study abroad for a full year. So I’m not sure how that will work out,” she said.
The payoff from a three-year degree comes in year four, when, instead of paying for college, a student is free to draw income.
Mercedes Plummer, 21, graduated this spring from Manchester College with a three-year degree in physical education. She cobbled together credits from summer classes and internships, took a heavy course load and transferred six credits from high school.
“I kind of sacrificed free time to hang out with friends,” she said. But she saved about $25,000 in college expenses, and now she’s free to hunt for a job as a school gym teacher.
At the flagship University of Massachusetts Amherst, 35 to 40 students a year finish degrees in three years. Provost James Staros expects that number to rise to more than 100 under a new three-year degree option.
“It’s still a very small number,” he said.