A growing number of undergraduate students are saying they want to, and an increasing number of colleges and universities are responding to that request.
The motivations are clear --
1. For a healthy number of these students, their undergraduate experience is the first of two or three degrees they intend to receive. Graduate, medical or law school, in other words, is something they've planned for.
2. There is a fantastic economic benefit. In one example in the aforementioned story, a woman suggests her child's ability to complete college in three years is the equivalent of an $18,000 scholarship (that amount representing what she would have had to pay if her child attended for a fourth year).
3. The three-year program provides a structure that, although perhaps not necessary, ensures a young man or woman knows exactly which courses will and need to be taken.
Sure, there is a traditional, almost Utopian view of being an undergraduate student -- "the four best years of your life," many people will say. I'd be among the first people uttering those words, and I believe that the maturity a young man or woman gains in that time is important and should benefit them for the rest of their lives.
But you can't pay the bills with Utopian funds.
It is here that the proverbial rubber meets the road: too many colleges and universities have seen their hand forced -- the decision to continually raise tuition and room and board costs at a level that exceeds inflation or beyond a reasonable cost-of-living gain has led families to seek alternatives to four years of college. Can you say community college? Can you say part-time? (And in some cases the tuition increase has priced too many students out of certain colleges entirely regardless of the number of years that might be spent on campus.) Moreover, public institutions remain in a devastating cycle which has seen their state governors and legislatures slash funding for higher education.
Though colleges and universities carry a non-profit label (and no I won't return here to my recent tirade about for-profit institutions), they are businesses. They seek the best faculty, the best students, important government grants, foundation dollars, and other indicators that suggest they are among the elite. However, all of this comes with a cost, and the undergraduate student carries too much of that burden. (A reasoned argument could be made they deserve to carry none of it, but that, too, might be Utopian.)
So for those who can get-in-and-get-out with their degree in three years, I say do it.
UPDATE: In the end, a 3-year degree is restrictive, when compared to the 4-year program.
It should not be attempted just because a student wants to "get out" in 3 years; that kind of motivation will not sustain a person.
Should a student opt to change a major, the chances of completing the 3-year undergraduate experience are shot. (But then again for countless numbers of students in traditional 4-year programs, a change of major can require an additional semester or year on campus.
And we cannot ignore that going for only 3 years seems to treat college like a business transaction instead of an opportunity to develop interests and explore options.
Yes, I see the benefits of it, but I also think a sound conversation must be had about WHY a 3-year degree is being pursued.