The Three-Year Plan

In an effort to save undergraduates time and money, some colleges are now offering students a three-year bachelor's degree. While popular in Europe, very few U.S. higher-ed institutions offer this choice to their students. Recent articles in The Washington Post and USA Today point to several institutions that have been exploring this option or have students actively enrolled in a “three-year plan.”

We spoke with Dr. Margaret Drugovich, president of Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY. Hartwick College is a private liberal arts and sciences college that recently decided to offer a three-year undergraduate degree for students this fall. Dr. Drugovich discussed the inception of this plan along with the benefits it brings to Hartwick's students and other institutions that may also choose to offer a three-year B.A.

Who or what initiated the idea of a three-year B.A.?
Dr. Drugovich:
I’ve been thinking about the possibility of a three-year bachelor’s program for some time, and when I came to Hartwick last July as the president, I realized, after reviewing the new curriculum that had been put into place for fall 2008, that it would be possible to actually offer the same courses, same degree, the same quality of courses, and the same delivery system — that is not online, but classroom instruction — with the new curriculum.

So, initially, it was my idea, but I went and talked to the faculty about it, and they were very enthusiastic about having this as an option for students who wish to pursue it.

I think I’ve been hearing from students and families for years that they feel that they want a liberal arts liberal education, but many times feel that they don’t have the funding to make it available. In some ways, I’ve been hearing about it for many, many years, the whole financial pressure, how to make this kind of education accessible to families. I would say that my inspiration did come from the families themselves. Not specifically at Hartwick because we started the process early there in my tenure, but you know, families over the years have been concerned about this.

The great thing about this program is that it’s three versus a four-year program, and it really is three-quarters of the cost, which for a typical family will save them over $40,000 for the cost of the degree.

Will the three-year degree be only for certain programs?
Dr. Drugovich:
Right now it’s for 24 of our 31 majors. Some of the other departments who haven’t been able to work with it yet are still working with the program to see if it is possible. For example, our art major may not be able to do a three-year program, but they may be able to do a thee-and-a-half year. So they are also working to scale back the time.

There are some majors, for example art, that so much studio time is required that it is really difficult to bring it back to three years.

What benefits besides time and cost does a three-year degree bring to your students?
Dr. Drugovich:
Well I think cost and time are significant benefits. So I would say that those are the principal benefits.

What this does is it allows students a great deal of flexibility. Some of the three-year programs that are available require the students do summer study. This one doesn’t. Students can still do their research in the summer, or they can work in a summer; they can do what they normally do in the summertime if they choose to do that. So I think that’s a real benefit to them that isn’t found in some of the other three-year programs out there.

To the best of my knowledge, we are still the first and only nationally ranked college that has chosen to offer this option. And it is an option. I would say that a majority of our students will choose the four-year program, but what we’ve seen for this coming fall, some really academically strong students are very interested in this program because they have graduate education in their future; they know that they want to continue on. They’re really clear about what they want to do, and they don’t feel that they need the extra time to figure that out.

Do you think other colleges and universities will pursue this type of program?
Dr. Drugovich:
I think lots of colleges are looking at this program right now. We’ve had a number of expressions of interest from other colleges. Colleagues of mine, other presidents, have spoken with me about this program. Other people in our institution have been approached by their colleagues. I think there is a lot of interest in this program.

It won’t be easy for all colleges to do depending on how flexible or inflexible their curriculum requirements are — it will be more difficult for some colleges to offer this to their students. But I think there is a lot of interest. So I think some colleges, if they can do it, will do it.

There is a certain amount of planning that you do have to do because your revenue stream is now going to be three rather than four years. There is a certain amount of planning and anticipation for changes in the revenue stream that you have to accommodate.

On the other hand, given the quality of students who will select this as an option, the likelihood of them graduating will go up with a three-year program. I think that will make a three-year program attractive to colleges and universities because I think we’re all interested in making sure that the highest number of our enrollees that can will graduate, so we think that this will help that so that people don’t run out of money prematurely for example, or they won’t have something else derail their education or delay their graduation.