Our higher-education reporter, Jenna Ross, reported recently that some colleges are considering the merits of three-year bachelor's degrees. The move could cut spiraling tuition and get young people on career tracks faster.

For the tiny number of laser-focused 20-somethings, I say, go for it.

But the numbers are tiny. Just 2.9 percent of students who started at the University of Minnesota in 2002, for example, graduated after three years. Of those who started in 2007, Ross noted, 4.8 percent finished three years later.

The fact is, we're raising a different generation of kids. They're taking longer to graduate, find jobs and marry, if they marry at all. Rather than throw up our hands, I say it's time to get comfortable with the idea of encouraging them to take their time.

For starters, I'm happy to see the stigma of community colleges and technical schools melting away. Less than 1 percent of high school seniors attend Ivy League schools such as Harvard or Yale; a small percentage more attend other elite schools. Many more attend four-year state schools, although still few graduate in a timely fashion.

But nearly half (47 percent) of undergraduates attend community colleges, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Many are first-generation college students who see this option as a stepping-stone to a four-year institution. About 30 percent are students of color.

Community colleges produce more than two-thirds of nurses and nearly 80 percent of our firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians. And, interestingly, these schools are admitting a growing number of students with impressive high school resumes looking to avoid skyrocketing tuitions at state schools, or who value smaller class sizes.

I'm happy, too, to see more young people taking a gap year after high school to work or volunteer in programs such as AmeriCorps, often called "the domestic Peace Corps." AmeriCorps applications have grown from 360,000 in 2009 to 535,000 in 2010, mostly from people ages 17 to 24, Spokesman Sandy Scott said. While some applicants are trying to avoid a dismal job market, most are driven "to serve a cause bigger than themselves," Scott said.

"It's a hallmark of this generation, which grew up against the backdrop of 9/11 and Katrina," Scott said.

That's why I can't figure out why we remain so reluctant to encourage our children to pursue possibly the best mind- and compassion-expander of all: studying abroad. I was reminded of the glories of international exchanges this week when an ebullient e-mail landed in my in-box from Nada Ali.

Nada, of Al Ahmadi, Kuwait, returns home this month after spending what she described as a "fruitful'' sophomore year at Central Senior High School in St. Paul.

Nada, whom I met when I took her to that grand cultural curiosity -- the Minnesota State Fair -- came to the Twin Cities with the Kennedy-Lugar Youth For Understanding USA's Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program. The State Department program was created to build bridges with primarily Muslim countries after 9/11. It also offers college exchange programs.

The trick is getting Mom and Dad to say yes.

"In American culture, parents aren't ready to let their kids go," said YFU USA (www.yfu-usa.org) Field Director Robyn Lee-Dobbs. Earlier this week, a German exchange student e-mailed Lee-Dobbs for advice. He's been encouraging a Twin Cities friend to study in Germany during the 2012 academic year. "Her parents are quite the 'helicopter parents,' who do not even want to consider letting her go. I was wondering if you could recommend someone she could turn to or some action she might take," the student wrote.

"I get these e-mails often," Lee-Dobbs said.

Nada could ease their minds. She's one of two exchange students nationwide selected to read personal essays about their experiences at a Senate reception in Washington, D.C., on June 16 -- her "Sweet 16" birthday.

Programs like YES, Nada wrote, "will help better the world and I always think that if everyone had this opportunity and knew the truth, the world would be a less cruel place."

If young Americans took advantage of this opportunity, they'd also likely return home more focused than ever on the future they want.

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 gail.rosenblum@startribune.com