Lake Forest College in Illinois responded to the recession by rolling out a three-year bachelor’s degree, offering students a chance to finish school sooner and join the workforce.

There were no takers.

Reformers have hailed the three-year degree as the potential salvation of higher education: a rewrite of the academic calendar that lowers the price of college by compressing it into 36 months. Several institutions have launched three-year degrees in a flurry of activity triggered by the economic downturn that began in 2008. Political leaders in at least two states, Ohio and Rhode Island, have instructed public colleges to offer accelerated degrees.

But students have not responded, and most three-year degree programs have flopped — a reminder, college leaders say, that students still regard college as an experience to be savored. Why rush the best four years of your life?

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a campus of 17,500 students, enrolled five students last year in its inaugural three-year degree program. The Fast Forward program at Manchester College in Indiana enrolled 20. The Degree in 3 program at nearby Ball State University served 29.

There are exceptions. A new three-year Global Scholars degree at American University in Washington has been somewhat more popular, with 58 students expected to enroll this fall. A three-year program at Hartwick College in Upstate New York served 47 students last year and expects about twice as many this fall. But even those programs serve a tiny percentage of overall students.

Katie Miller enrolled in the three-year degree program at Manchester, a liberal arts college southeast of Chicago. But once she arrived on campus in fall 2009, the rich palette of collegiate life beckoned. She studied in Spain, London and Paris and signed up for obscure courses outside her education major. She soon realized she would need more than three years to experience it all. She opted out of accelerated study.

“I decided that you only have a certain amount of time to enjoy the college experience,” said Miller, 20, from Winchester, Ind. “And I wasn’t in as much of a hurry as I thought.”

Pluses, though few takers

Some scholars see the three-year degree as the next logical step in the evolution of American higher education. More students arrive at college with a stack of credits from Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, allowing them to graduate sooner, even if the college has no accelerated program. College leaders are looking to reverse the upward trend in sticker price, which at top private institutions tops $50,000 a year for tuition and living expenses.

Most colleges hew to the agrarian calendar and an arbitrary four-year pace for the bachelor’s degree, a schedule adopted by Harvard College in 1652 in accordance with British custom. (England long ago switched to a three-year degree.)

Compressing the bachelor’s degree into three years could be healthy for American colleges, advocates say, encouraging them to use buildings that would otherwise be empty during winter and summer breaks and to expand online study.

Three-year degrees have come and gone over the years, but the idea has never taken hold because “not enough schools are doing it,” said Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University.

Bates College in Maine and Judson College in Alabama have offered three-year degrees since the 1960s. Bates has graduated 36 accelerated students in the past 12 years. Judson has had about 100 three-year graduates since 1998. Neither school has seen participation rise of late.

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.

Compressed schedules

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.