For all of these reasons, some forward-looking colleges like Hartwick are rethinking the old way of doing things and questioning decades-old assumptions about what a college degree means. For instance, why does it have to take four years to earn a diploma? This fall, 16 first-year students and four second-year students at Hartwick, located halfway between Binghamton and Albany, enrolled in the school’s new three-year degree program. According to the college, the plan is designed for high-ability, highly motivated students who wish to save money or to move along more rapidly toward advanced degrees.

By eliminating that extra year, three-year degree students save 25 percent in costs. Instead of taking 30 credits a year, these students take 40. During January, Hartwick runs a four-week course during which students may earn three to four credits on or off campus, including a number of international sites. Summer courses are not required, but a student may enroll in them—and pay extra. Three-year students get first crack at course registration. There are no changes in the number of courses professors teach or in their pay.

In April, Lipscomb University in Nashville also announced a three-year option, along with a plan for veterans to attend tuition-free and make it easier and cheaper for community-college students to attend Lipscomb. Lipscomb requires its three-year-degree students to take eight semesters, which means summer school is required. Still, university president Randy Lowry estimates that a three-year-degree student saves about $11,000 in tuition and fees.