Harvard, like many other places, has an option by which students (with "Advanced Standing" from AP classes) can obtain a Master's (in some programs) as well as their undergraduate degree in 4 years. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and CS in particular, offers this option.
Every year some students I advise are interested in and want advice about the program. My first question back is always why do they want to do it -- what do they think they'll get out of it? Often, they don't have a good reason; it seems they just see it as an opportunity to get an additional degree, which I don't think is a particularly good reason in and of itself. (Harvard students are, after all, high-achievers and trained to respond to such incentives.) Some possible reasons that come up include:
1) They're going into industry, and they believe that the Master's will give them a higher starting salary (which may, over a lifetime, translate into a substantial benefit).
2) They're going into graduate school, and believe the degree will allow them to move faster through their graduate program, or at least allow them to take fewer classes.
3) They're coming from another area, like economics or chemistry, but have found late in the game that they like computer science, and would like to have a credential in that area in case that is where they move in terms of their career.
4) Their parents have figured out that they can technically graduate in three years and are unwilling to pay for four, but can be convinced to pay for it if there is a Masters degree involved.
Are there other reasons? And how good are these reasons? Is there still a "Master's premium" in starting salaries, even for a "4th year" class-based Master's program? Does starting with a Master's of this kind really get you through graduate school faster anywhere? (Personally, I already think graduate students don't take enough classes, so I'm biased against reason 2.) The third reason -- a student coming in from another field -- is reasonable, but Harvard does now have minors (called "secondary concentrations" here) instead. Pressuring parents is not a reason I can throw support behind, but I can certainly understand it. Maybe it's the best reason on my current list.
Of course, it's important to consider what, if any, are the downsides. Here's my starting list:
1) A loss of flexibility in choosing classes. Doing the two degrees in four years saddles a student with so many requirements they lose the chance to take that art or history class, learn a language, or do some other exploratory things in college. Isn't that part of what college is supposed to be about?
2) It often ends up taking the place of other college experiences, like doing a senior thesis or other research. For students who want to go to graduate school, I'd personally recommend doing a senior thesis over a 4th year master's degree, so that they can begin to get some insight into how research works -- and if they'll really like it.
3) It can be hard. Most graduate courses have large-scale final projects; trying to 6-8 such courses in two or three semesters can be a real challenge, and is certainly a time-commitment.
As always, my biggest goal in advising students on such matters is to make sure they're well-informed and have thought through the various implications of their choices. I'd appreciate any thoughts anyone has on the matter, either from their own personal experience or their experience with students who have done such programs.