By Katy Hopkins

Any student may be able to wrangle similar savings with focus and planning

Would you sacrifice part of the proverbial best four years of your life to cut costs?

Paying eight semesters' worth of tuition, room and board, textbooks, and other fees can add up to tens of thousands of dollars -- and that's only if you finish college in four years. For about 60 percent of students, the college experience takes at least another semester before graduation.

But some schools offer or are planning to debut new, fast-track bachelor's degree programs that only hit families' wallets for three years.

In fall 2011, schools including Grace College and Seminary, Baldwin-Wallace College , Lesley University , and St. John's University introduced three-year degree programs, according to a running list created by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). And the programs are increasingly being explored, both by prospective institutions and college-bound students and parents, says NAICU's Director of Communications Tony Pals.

"The economic downturn has encouraged more students and families to consider the three-year option, and for academically well prepared and highly focused students, these programs can be very attractive," Pals says. "These programs can represent a significant cost savings for consumers."

In an effort to become more affordable, officials at Grace College originally toyed with discounting tuition, Provost William Katip says. But fearing that such a move may seem too "gimmicky," Katip says the school instead revamped the curriculum and calendar to accommodate three-year graduation plans for its 50 undergraduate majors. For three years, students take more, short courses during the fall and spring semesters, and any credits taken in the summer are free (save for a $125 technology fee). Based on the school's accounting, the plan can save students up to 50 percent on college, between costs they don't pay and salaries they could begin to earn a year early.

"Twenty-five percent is saving a whole year right up front," Katip figures. "The other 25 percent: Our annual tuition is very close to what our first-year graduates make. The fact is, you're out working and you've got one year of earnings." Students with financial need would also be spared a year of college loans, he adds.

Rather than entering the workforce a year early, other students in three-year degree programs may use the extra year to head to graduate school sooner. That's one potential avenue for students in the new three-year Global Scholars degree program American University started in fall 2011.

The 57 students in the university's inaugural Global Scholars program "may save a little bit" of money, but the real impetus behind the three-year program was to offer a new challenge to ambitious and driven students, says Lyn Stallings, interim vice provost for undergraduate studies at AU. The university plans to offer at least one more three-year degree program, focused on politics, policy, and law, in 2014, she says.

The thought of earning a college degree in three years initially terrified American University freshman Isabelle Rodas, but the combination of financial aid and an accelerated path to a future in international relations was too hard to turn down.

"There's so much that I want to do -- I don't have time to be spending years and years in college," says Rodas, who hopes to complete a master's degree (area to be determined) in what would otherwise have been her senior year. "When I saw this was a three-year program with a master's in four years, it was perfect."

Of course, students don't have to be enrolled in a specific three-year program to work their way to an early graduation or accelerated master's degree. For Ted Griffith, four years at Vanderbilt University yielded both a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in finance after he realized that hard work and diligent planning could shave time off his college experience.

"My parents said they would pay for four years of college; they just didn't say which four," says Griffith, who has since started Direct His Publishing, a textbook publisher. When Mom and Dad agreed to fund a master's degree in his fourth year, "That was really helpful for me to say, 'Hey, let's get a move on and do something a little bigger, a little better.'

"Technically, we did end up paying for four years of college," Griffith notes. But "if you think of it just as undergrad, I saved a good bit of money that way."

For some students, however, the cost savings might not be a worthy trade-off for the potential pitfalls of an accelerated degree.

"The downside is that it gives students less opportunity to explore different academic options, which could be a challenge for those students who go into college not quite sure of the direction they want to head," NAICU's Pals says.

Knowing that a degree in economics was the path he really wanted to pursue helped Griffith finish early at Vanderbilt, he says. And having a firm grasp on your future goals is a crucial point for admittance to the American University plan, too.

"It's a three-year program, which means that [students] should really have an idea of what they want their major to be right away," American's Stallings says. "They are going to be taking their major courses very quickly."

Students might also want to consider whether they'll feel like they're missing out on senior year of college -- though for AU student Rodas, what seemed a scary situation hasn't turned out to be an issue.

"You think, 'three years,' and when I was asking [for] advice, everyone was like, 'That's so much pressure; how are you going to enjoy your youth and enjoy college?'" Rodas recounts. "I know that I'm getting the exact same experience. You definitely still do get the college feel."

And for Rodas, at least, the perceived benefits outweigh any initial speculation.

"It's incredible, because then you can go to graduate school faster, and you can be more competitive in today's job market," she says. "It was definitely the best decision I ever made, doing the three year program."


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New Three-Year Degree Programs Trim College Costs