Blitzing through college in three years is a well-known trick for students and families looking to save money. In the past year, both the New York Times and the Washington Post have run stories on the helpful recession-time tactic. This week, though, former education secretary Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a longtime fan of the three-year-plan, has a new idea: Rush students through in three years not only to help students, but to save colleges. Sound strange? Take a look at the outline of Alexander's argument, and how it stacks up against others:

  • A Problematic, Outdated System,  Alexander writes of the college system in Newsweek. The current school year means institutions lose money over the summer to maintain facilities; tenure prevents "critical" faculty turnover, while "soar[ing]" tuition costs remain a constant concern. Alexander suggests that the three-year degree could repair some of the American university's nagging problems:
Expanding the three-year option or year-round schedules may be difficult, but it may be more palatable than asking Congress for additional bailout money, asking legislators for more state support, or asking students for even higher tuition payments. Campuses willing to adopt convenient schedules along with more-focused, less-expensive degrees may find that they have a competitive advantage in attracting bright, motivated students. As George Romney might have put it, these sorts of innovations can help American universities, long the example to the world, avoid the perils of success.
  • Three-Year Degree Is a Four-Year Degree Without Study Abroad, Tim Carmody points out at the Snarkmarket blog. "[T]he real problem,"  he writes is that "many [students] ... are wasting their time in Europe." He agrees that having post-graduate work extend to the early thirties is hardly ideal, but says he doesn't "think that hur­ry­ing the entire process along is a) where we are headed or b) where we want to head."
  • Three-Year Degree a Raw Deal  First of all, writes Denny Wilkins at Scholars and Rogues, "[c]olleges do not need to formally offer three-year degrees"--students can already achieve a three-year bachelor's on their own. Secondly, a three-year degree is really only a good idea for a very small portion of freshmen, and "if ... colleges assert that the three-year degree is of the same quality as the four-year degree, they’re misleading their market." Fun in college is important, Wilkins argues, as is time for "reflection and meditation on what's been learned." He soundly rebuffs the notion that the three-year degree would in fact help students get ahead:
Proponents of three-year degrees argue that students get a "head start." On what? Life? That’s specious, given increased life expectancy. The work force?

... if the freshman arriving with AP and college credits stays a fourth year, perhaps she'll walk across the stage with two majors and two minors or a dual degree (bachelor’s and master’s) or one major and three minors.

She will likely have earned 135 to 142 credits. She will be more marketable than others on the stage with her because she will be far more accomplished. She will be easily distinguished from her peers.