Minnesota universities could soon cut the price of a four-year degree in a fresh way: by lopping a year off.

National debate about the value of a three-year bachelor's degree has reached the state's two public higher education systems. Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is studying the idea. Two of its universities have proposed condensed programs in certain majors. The University of Minnesota, Morris, is quietly debating doing the same.

The idea is gaining traction as families demand relief from ever-increasing tuition.

Some experts say three-year degrees could save students a fourth of the cost of college. Critics point out that they could also miss out on a quarter of the education.

"The three-year degree could become the higher-education equivalent of the fuel-efficient car," Newsweek proclaimed. "The three-year degree is no silver bullet," the Association of American Colleges and Universities replied.

Colleges differ in how they do it. Some rely on students earning college credit while in high school, others on students packing credits in, often during summers. The most radical proposals trim the number of credits required to graduate.

"The more dramatic the innovations, the more that they bump against other things," said Scott Olson, MnSCU's interim vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. Those things include faculty contracts, outside oversight and student interest, he said -- "external forces that might limit the ability to make dramatic changes."

Even without formal three-year paths, more students are compressing their college careers.

About 2.9 percent of students who started at the University of Minnesota in 2002 graduated after three years. Five years later, 4.8 percent of students did. But the numbers are still small. At MnSCU's seven universities, for example, just 135 students who started in 2006 earned a bachelor's degree three years later. That's less than 2 percent.

Natalie Baumgartner took four years to earn her degree -- but paid for two.

She completed her associate's degree through North Hennepin Community College while still in high school, then enrolled at Metro State University in St. Paul.

A MnSCU report shows that students who graduate in three years are much more likely to have entered school with college credits. About 23 percent of them came in with 45 or more credits.

"College is expensive," Baumgartner said, but post-secondary enrollment options, or PSEO, was free. "My mom doesn't have a ton of money, but I knew she wanted to help me pay for college. I just figured that if I could make it easier on her, I would."

Baumgartner graduated from Metro State this month with a B.A. in social science at the age of 20. Next fall, she'll start the University of Minnesota's master's program in social work -- without a dollar of debt.

Some experts worry that three-year programs push colleges to focus on a small pool of hypermotivated students like Baumgartner. Meanwhile, data show, most students struggle to graduate in even four years.

This week, MnSCU's Board of Trustees discussed the pluses and minuses.

Three-year programs could attract motivated students, improve graduation rates and help students avoid future tuition increases. But they could also force students to forgo summer internships, be seen as less rigorous and divert shrinking resources to a small number of students.

Getting students to graduate quickly requires extra advising and early class registration, so "certainly, three-year degree programs have the potential to impact the majority of students in a negative way," a committee that has studied the issue told the board Wednesday.

"It's an advantage to those who take advantage of it," said Leslie Mercer, an associate vice chancellor. "But if you are strapped for resources, and you divert resources for that, one of the consequences could be that students in that middle group ... maybe don't get the courses when they need them. "So it's a bit of a balancing act."

How it might work

So far, no college has shrunk the number of credits needed for a bachelor's degree by a fourth.

Under plans for three-year business and criminal justice programs at Bemidji State University, students would take just as many courses. But they'd take them more quickly. Students on the business track, for example, would have a normal load in fall and spring semesters, then attend summer school in person or online.

Business Prof. Thomas Fauchald said that many of his online students already take courses during the summer.

It's possible for students to graduate early without a formal three-year plan. But creating a program "would require commitment from both sides," he said. "Here are all the things you need to do. We're going to commit to you that you're going to have these courses when you need them."

Designing such a program "wasn't a huge stretch for us," Fauchald said, in part because Bemidji has experience with online programs. "When you come from a place that's a little more alternative thinking, the three-year option wasn't very radical."

Sophomores from the start

More students at the University of Minnesota, Morris, graduate in three years than those at the U's other campuses. That's one reason Morris is considering a three-year option. Such conversations are "very preliminary," spokeswoman Christine Mahoney said.

The campus would not reduce the number of credits required, she said. Instead, it might build on the fact that 15 percent of Morris' last two incoming freshman classes had 30 or more college credits.

"I can think of a half-dozen of my good friends who were sophomores the minute they stepped on campus," said Matt Privratsky, a student leader and political science major who just graduated from Morris (in four years).

He thinks those students would be attracted to a three-year option, especially with parents "more and more saying, what's the dollar value?" But like others, Privatsky worries about how it will affect students' relationships with faculty -- "Morris' biggest value."

"If someone's only there for three years instead of four, you're taking 25 percent of the interaction away," he said. "But I think many of our students are capable of getting out of three years what some students get in four."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168