In today’s Post, I discuss the middling success to date of programs that offer a bachelor’s degree in three years.

At least a dozen colleges and universities have launched three-year degrees, mostly in the last few years and in direct response to the economic downturn. Higher-education reformers have suggested the three-year degree could be a potentially potent alternative to the traditional four-year route.

The idea seems to make all kinds of sense: Students are arriving at college with more college credits than ever, thanks to the steep rise in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate study. The sticker price at private national universities is growing so high that even comparatively affluent families don’t feel they can afford it.

Here’s a chance to discount that price by as much as one-quarter. For colleges, the three-year degree represents an exercise in operational efficiency – a chance to throw open idle classrooms in winter and summer and to approach a 24/7 schedule of year-round learning.

And yet…

Students have been slow to respond to the offer of accelerated study. A three-year degree is hard to do if you don’t know exactly what you want to study. It leaves less flexibility for travel, electives and campus life. Above all, the three-year degree means one less year at college -- and most students seem to find it hard to leave campus once they have arrived.

Here’s a bit more detail on some of the three-year programs I surveyed in my reporting.

Hartwick College: Launched a three-year degree in fall 2009, available in more than two dozen majors. The program started with 18 students, is up to 47 students and is on target to add 40 more in fall, making it possibly the largest such program in the nation. Five students have graduated to date. Admission requires a 3.0 GPA. Students complete 120 credits in three years, averaging 18 credits each semester and four credits in a short January (or J) Term. There is a non-refundable $500 fee.

“We have seen this outpouring of interest,” said Margaret Drugovich, Hartwick’s president. “What I hear from families is that they’re really hungry for a high-quality program that they can afford.”

Drugovich said she was so concerned about the quality of the program that she personally interviewed the first five graduates to “make sure that we had provided them the experience we’d promised.”

University of North Carolina Greensboro: “UNCG in 3” launched in fall 2010, open to students in 17 departments. Five students made up the inaugural class. Students must enter the program with 12 hours of college credit gained in high school. Growth has been slow: many more students expressed interest in the program than actually enrolled. Administrators say they may not have adequately promoted the program. The university serves large numbers of students below the poverty level who would presumably benefit from savings that amount to about $9,000 from forgoing the fourth year.

“To do this is a social justice imperative,” said Steve Roberson, undergraduate dean, in an e-mail interview. “More, though, it makes fiscal sense to spend tax dollars wisely by truncating the path to degree completion.”

University of Massachusetts Amherst: the three-year option launched in fall 2010 in economics, sociology and music. It’s more a pathway than a program, said Provost James Staros. Advisors present the option to students and let them decide whether to pursue it; participation isn’t tracked, he said. The path do a degree can vary, but the program is geared to AP geeks – those who have amassed considerable AP or IB credits in high school. “For instance,” a university press release says, “a student with 12 AP credits could get a degree in three years by averaging 16 credits per term and earning 12 credits in summer sessions.”

Staros predicts participation will be low; even AP geeks, he said, might have other agendas. “They might want to double-major. They might want to take a major and three minors.” Such goals cannot easily be met in three years.

Bates College: The school launched a three-year degree in 1965 for students in a hurry to get to grad school. Students participate at a rate of about three a year. Most students don’t even consider accelerated study, said Stephen Sawyer, associate dean of students: “Life is good, so why accelerate it?” (Cautionary note to those who follow the Bates link: The Beatles song "Eight Days a Week” actually predated the Bates degree by several months. The Beatles were, as ever, ahead of their time.)

Ball State University: The Degree in 3 program begain in 2005 and was open to 30 to degrees. Buy-in has been slow: the program has yielded just 10 graduates so far. Unlike some three-year programs, Degree in 3 is not designed to yield large discounts for students; a student without AP credits might save just 2 percent of total tuition costs, presumably because he or she pays the same per-credit fee as everyone else.

Nonetheless, the exercise of compressing a four-year education into three years “has created a lot of efficiency” at the school, said Tom Taylor, vice president for enrollment, marketing and communication.

American University: The Global Scholars three-year program launches this fall. It is, as far as I know, the only true three-year degree program in or around Washington. With 58 deposits in hand, the program is potentially one of the largest in the nation, even though it is confined to a single major. AU Provost Scott Bass said the program is filled with high-impact experiences identified by research to foster academic engagement, such as undergraduate research, collaborative work, global study and shared learning.

“This is learning at its best,” he said.

Manchester College: The Fast Forward program launched in 2008. Like Ball State and other schools, Manchester has found that the three-year option yields lots of student inquiries but few enrollees. There were 20 Fast Forward students in 2010. Another 30 have been admitted for fall. Students must be in the top quartile of their high school class and score about 550 per section on the SAT to qualify. Students take mandatory online summer classes, and they can’t add or change a major. Each graduate of the program saves about $25,000.

This is but a sampling. Do you know of another three-year degree program, large or small, successful or not? Please describe it in the comments section.