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Three-year degree plan touted as money saver

Does the thought of spending $80,000 to $100,000 on a four-year college degree depress you?

Then Oberlin College President Fred Starr has an idea: Finish college in three years, go to work, and cut your college expenses in half. That's right, cut them in half.

Starr's idea has sparked a national debate on the merits of a four-year bachelor's degree. It also has focused attention on the quality of college preparation most students get in high school. (A good accelerated program won't work unless you give yourself a running start.)

Starr, a Renaissance man who is equally at home discussing Russian politics and New Orleans jazz, likes to think an accelerated degree will force colleges to concentrate on what is truly important. But he freely admits that economics is the primary motivator.

Here's how he explained the math last week to a group of juniors in the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School, honor students who he said would be especially well-prepared for an accelerated college degree:

Suppose the private college you want to attend will cost $80,000 over the next four years for tuition and living expenses. (That's not dreaming. Some prestigious colleges will cost $100,000.) Eliminating one year will reduce your direct cost to $60,000.

But also consider that you can get a job during that extra year. A college graduate ought to clear at least $20,000 a year, Starr said. Continue living like a student _ say you'll spend $5,000, and save $15,000. You've just reduced your total college bill to $45,000.

The savings can be even more dramatic for a public university student: Three years instead of four might reduce a $40,000 bill to $30,000. Save another $15,000 your first year out, and you've spent only $15,000 on your degree.

Of course, the biggest objections to an accelerated degree come from those who believe that the undergraduate experience is worth more than money and that it ought to include more than what you can learn in the classroom. Baby-boomer parents contemplating offspring in college are apt to be filled with nostalgia, and memories of coursework often isn't what thrills them.

"Students mature so much between the ages of 17 and 22 that they would lose a lot if we took away a year," Dartmouth College President James O. Freedom told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Students should explore a lot of things; they should have a sense of progression, and they should have a sense of mastery."

Brown University President Vartan Gregorian told the San Francisco Chronicle that cost-cutting students could just "stay at home and read the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which costs $600, and take a test at the end."

Starr thinks comments like these are arrogant, as if the ivory tower has some sort of monopoly on wisdom and valuable life experience. "It implies that people will learn less about life when they're out working," he says, noting that many fourth-year students in residential colleges already push to move off campus, recognizing the limits of their experience.

Starr also insists that a three-year degree has room for serendipity. A quick degree requires that some basic coursework be gotten out of the way in high school and through advanced placement tests. That leaves more room for electives and upper-level coursework, and maybe even a quicker jump to . . . graduate school.

"One of the biggest wastes in our educational system is that last year of high school," Starr says. "This is the first college-level reform that fosters a true partnership with the high schools."

He acknowledges that a three-year degree isn't for everyone. But the number of students taking advanced placement tests has continued to rise in recent years, and national surveys have identified two groups of students who are especially keen on moving quickly through college: very high achievers and minorities.

A college that wants to attract more bright students and minorities can't afford to overlook the benefits of promoting a three-year degree, he says.

And what of public urban universities like the University of South Florida, where half of the students attend classes part-time and work for a living, and where even full-time students often take five years, not four, to finish their undergraduate degrees? What's in this for them?

Starr says the push to beef up high school and streamline college may introduce sufficient reforms to change many five-year plans into four-year degrees.

And think of the money saved by the Starr plan. It might be just what some of those grinding part-timers need to make full-time college affordable.