Of course, students don't have to be enrolled in a specific three-year program to work their way to an early graduation or accelerated master's degree. For Ted Griffith, four years at Vanderbilt University yielded both a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in finance after he realized that hard work and diligent planning could shave time off his college experience.
"My parents said they would pay for four years of college; they just didn't say which four," says Griffith, who has since started Direct Hits Publishing, which produces test prep materials. When Mom and Dad agreed to fund a master's degree in his fourth year, "That was really helpful for me to say, 'Hey, let's get a move on and do something a little bigger, a little better.'
"Technically, we did end up paying for four years of college," Griffith notes. But "if you think of it just as undergrad, I saved a good bit of money that way."
[Find out how some colleges help students go directly to graduate school.]
For some students, however, the cost savings might not be a worthy trade-off for the potential pitfalls of an accelerated degree.
"The downside is that it gives students less opportunity to explore different academic options, which could be a challenge for those students who go into college not quite sure of the direction they want to head," NAICU's Pals says.
Knowing that a degree in economics was the path he really wanted to pursue helped Griffith finish early at Vanderbilt, he says. And having a firm grasp on your future goals is a crucial point for admittance to the American University plan, too.
"It's a three-year program, which means that [students] should really have an idea of what they want their major to be right away," American's Stallings says. "They are going to be taking their major courses very quickly."
Students might also want to consider whether they'll feel like they're missing out on senior year of college—though for AU student Rodas, what seemed a scary situation hasn't turned out to be an issue.
"You think, 'three years,' and when I was asking [for] advice, everyone was like, 'That's so much pressure; how are you going to enjoy your youth and enjoy college?'" Rodas recounts. "I know that I'm getting the exact same experience. You definitely still do get the college feel."
And for Rodas, at least, the perceived benefits outweigh any initial speculation.
"It's incredible, because then you can go to graduate school faster, and you can be more competitive in today's job market," she says. "It was definitely the best decision I ever made, doing the three year program."
Searching for a college? Access our complete rankings of Best Colleges.
Corrected 3/5/12: A previous version of the story misstated information regarding Ted Griffith's master's degree and company.