Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Ask the Administrator: The "Four-Year" Degree

A longtime reader writes:

Given the experience of some friends, I'm wondering what you think
about the end of the "four year degree." A number of friends took 5
years to do a four year BA while a bunch (including myself took the
normal 4). Others take a victory lap (a 5th year) to improve grades
for graduate\professional programs. Do you have any sense of whether
taking more than four years to complete a bachelor's degree is a
growing trend or not? There seems to be a few reasons for this trend.
For some, it is those taking a part time route - they know at the
beginning that it will take more than four years since they are doing
less than a full load.

Is it a good idea to let people take longer than four years? I would
not want to exclude or eliminate people if they took longer, but it
does seem like there should be a carrot and stick encouragement to get
in, get serious and graduate promptly. Does taking longer have any
particularly positive or negative outcomes at your college? Is it wise
to be neutral (you can take as long as you want: here are the pros and
cons of each method) or be strict about completing on time? I know at
the graduate level - where I am now - that departments are under
pressure to "graduate people on time" but I'm not sure if there is
equivalent pressure at the undergraduate level.

This is a sensitive issue.

In practice, it's common to refer to Associate degrees as “two-year” degrees and bachelor's degrees as “four-year” degrees. (Interestingly, there's no normative timeframe attached to Masters or Doctorates, even though there are normative times attached to J.D.'s and M.D.'s.) They're usually structured on the assumption that they can be completed in either four or eight full-time semesters, even though only a minority of students actually do that.

Taking longer can reflect any number of variables, from going part-time to changing majors to medical or personal leaves to starting with remedial classes to checkered performance to enrollment in a designed “three plus two” program (common in engineering). (Alternately, some people finish faster by taking summer classes, piling up AP credits, and taking overloads.) I'd hesitate to draw any conclusions about a given student, given only the information that she took more than four years. Yes, that could reflect aimlessness or indifferent performance, but it could also reflect many other things, most of which have nothing to do with either drive or talent.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was a mythical creature called the Perpetual Student. The Perpetual Student exploited free or remarkably cheap tuition, cheap student housing, and abundant financial aid (along with some dicier sources of income, such as, um, let's go with 'running informal, freelance pharmacies') to stay in college forever and thereby avoid both the Real World and the draft. Perpetual Students at the undergrad level went extinct sometime in the 1980's, killed off by the cost shift of higher education from the public to the student, the rapid rise in housing rents, and the all-volunteer army. By the early 90's, the only remaining Perpetual Students were usually found in graduate programs in the evergreen disciplines, where they subsisted mostly on tuition waivers and righteous outrage. There was one in my graduate program, regarded by the rest of us as a sort of historical curiosity. When last I saw him, he was busily doing the umpteenth revision of an already-obsolete dissertation, and making predictably ill-fated passes at pretty young lesbians.

Although they've been extinct for some time, Perpetual Students left a bad taste in the mouth of mainstream culture. (“The Mouth of Mainstream Culture” would be a good name for a band.) Like hippies and Black Panthers, they animated a backlash far out of proportion to any actual threat they ever really posed. At this point, though they've been gone for decades, they immediately leap to mind when people talk about 'graduating on the five-year plan' or 'going part-time.'

I've actually heard employers visiting campus say that they give extra points to applicants who graduated 'on time,' which I interpreted as animus toward the Perpetual Student. Taking 'too long' because you spent all your time smoking weed and listening to Pink Floyd is blameworthy; taking 'too long' because the minimum wage hasn't kept up with tuition and your parents aren't rich, isn't. But in the absence of context, it's easier just to sort the application piles into 'standard' and 'deviant' and be done with it.

If we want more students to graduate 'on time,' which is a fine goal in itself, I don't think the way to do it is by punishing those who don't. Instead, it's to make the goal more attainable by, say, improving their preparation levels in high school, bringing costs within range, providing services like on-campus childcare, and, yes, taking a serious look at how we remediate and how we teach those tricky first-year courses. A lousy public high school is its own punishment; heaping additional scorn on a kid who took an extra year to undo the damage before getting on the degree track just adds insult to injury.

One dean's opinion, anyway.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'm not opposed to the four year degree; afterall, that's what I did, but it's probably a vestige of the industrial model of teaching. A colleague I respect remarked at a recent conference, "What's magic about a 14 week semester? What if it takes someone 15 weeks to master the material." I don't know the literature on this, but I'm suspicious of the notion that people who learn faster, learn better. As we move to a system of genuinely individualized learning, perhaps the question of the four year degree will become more moot.
I took five years to do a four year degree for three reasons. The first was economic, when I started I couldn't pay for full time tuition so I went part time. Later I took a term off to go to Europe. Yeah, I know, but I went to Uni over the summer and worked my ass off so I could earn the money and travel in the off season when it was cheaper. The third reason is because I changed majors so I had some catching up to do, again I went to summer school. And then I did a 'victory lap' (I've never heard that before!) so that I could get into a graduate program in my minor more easily (it worked). It also took me a term longer to finish my MA than is 'normal' because I had to do fieldwork out of my country of study.

Now I am a perpetual graduate student, legendary in my program for all sorts of reasons but mostly for taking so bloody long to finish. I can't say that running drugs or cheap housing/tuition has kept me back, it has been a combination of things including deaths and births and badly-timed sabbaticals. I'm sure from the outside it looks like lots of drama of my own making, but I can't worry about that, I can only keep working when and how I can. Or quit, I guess I could do that!

All this to say that there are many, many reasons for people to take longer. I can see how at the undergraduate end of things when employers or graduate programs are sifting through hundreds of applicants you could use 'length of time to completion' as a sorting category, but if this is really going to hold people back, when there are many legitimate reasons for things to take a bit longer, or even a lot longer, then I think that's a bit ridiculous.

At the graduate level I can see taking a look at it. I've already been thinking about how to deal with this issue if I go on the job market, it is up to me to help a hiring committee make sense of my strange trajectory. I would hope, though, that my interesting research and solid teaching experience will be what they notice first, not time to completion. In fact I would like to think that I could spin it in such a way as to say "look, I finished in spite of all of this crap" and turn it into something positive about myself. Of course I'm probably fooling myself!
The magic of a 14 week semester is learning (I resist saying "covering") the 15 weeks of material that was the norm when a semester was 15 weeks plus finals and a quarter was 10 weeks plus finals.

My undergrad years consisted of 33 weeks of classroom and examination time, while today the norm is 30 weeks (for a higher price). This is not a trivial detail when the subject is a fixed (and growing) content area such as physics or calculus that must be learned before entering an engineering program.

On the main topic, I had no trouble carrying a full-time load back in the day ... but I only worked summers and had parents who had saved the money needed for four years of college. Things are different now, but you could buy two really hot sports cars for what it cost me to go to college, and that is not too different today.
Most schools in my state discourage malingering by limiting the number of units you can enroll in to about 5 years of full time study. But I have to say, most of the people I knew that took extra time had good reasons - double majors, jobs, lives that involved kids or significant family responsibilities. I wouldn't look down on someone who took longer - especially in engineering where it's almost a given that you'll do 5 years.
The graduate and undergraduate issues are different animals. Time-to-degree in graduate school is highly dependent on when your advisor and committee think you're ready. It can get stretched out for many reasons, some of which are the student's fault, some of which aren't.

The undergrad degree, on the other hand, is a set course of study with much less subjectivity. I can see why some employers are biased against longer time-to-completion, since it might be correlated with a reluctance to really buckle down and work hard unless the student could document significant work experience at the same time. It might not be true in a given student's case, but if you're looking at 80 applicants/position, it's a useful heuristic to winnow the pile, and it won't get you sued for discrimination.
Taking four years is only "normal" if one is able to go to school full time for all four years, makes absolutely no changes of major/minor, has nothing out of the ordinary come up. Yes, this has been the "norm" for middle-class students whose parents saved money to put them through college. And yes, it is possible to graduate within four years from most universities, even today.

The difference today, as I see it, is that most full time students work in addition to going to school. That means that the rising cost of tuition influences number of credit hours a student can take in a given semester, and so there's not much room to correct for an error in judgment. (In my case, I was able to finish in four years even though I changed my major (this was the early to mid-90s) but this was only because I took credit hour overloads in three semesters and ultimately quit my work study job in the last semester that I was in school, which would not have been possible for me with the cost of tuition today and the stagnation of funding).

Also, since so many students have to work - even if they are full time students - and that they may not be able easily to negotiate fitting a required course that's offered at a particular time into their work schedule, that can also extend time to degree - not because the student "planned" to take longer than 4 years but because what works on paper (obviously I can take 15/hrs a semester and be done in four years!) doesn't necessarily work out given the logistics of course requirements.

In other words, I guess I'd say "normal" depends on how much money a student has in the bank and how much support they have in pursuing their education.

Finally, I think the main reason why grad programs are pressured to push students through is because grad students in many disciplines cost an institution money (stipends, tuition waivers) and also a department's prestige depends on how many of its grads get jobs per year (and if they're all hanging around for years and years, they're not cooperating with the need for statistics about job placement). In contrast, undergrads make an institution money, and nobody picks a college or a major based on how many people can secure entry level jobs upon graduation or even how long it takes people to graduate. As long as they see that it's "possible" to graduate in four years, that's really good enough. Only later does the time stretch out, and then that just makes the school money as long as the student doesn't drop out.
Speaking as a just-finished grad student, who got a B.A. and an M.A. in a total of six years flat(the expected time for my programs), I think DD has it about right- but I also think the faculty deserves a lot of credit for whether students whip through their program or not, especially in grad school.

Advising makes all the difference- knowing what to take and when, knowing where the pitfalls in undergrad requirements are at your specific institution, and keeping the grad student on track and not letting them get unrealistic about what they can accomplish: these are things the faculty needs to do. I was lucky- I had professors do all these things.

My speedy completion of school was part luck, part hard f'ng work, and part good advice from professors. I worked to pay all my own bills starting freshman year- no rich anybodys paying my way. I also completed two majors and a minor as an undergrad, and not in particularly related fields either. But I also had the fortune of the classes I needed being offered at good times for me, no major life disasters, no kids or spouse to worry about, etc.

Still, I think the difference between me getting through on time and me not being done was the professors who helped me get there. They cared whether I finished on time, and I had the good sense (thank heavens!) to listen to what they told me and follow their suggestions.

Which is why I'll be getting that hood on Saturday.
There's also the issue of the availability of classes. In many programs, classes required for graduation are full, and some students, especially CC transfer students, simply can't get in. At the state university where most students from my CC transfer, it takes nearly five years for anyone to graduate--simply because it's crowded.

I just graduated from a public liberal arts school with my BA. I finished in three years, because I hate school and wanted out of there more than anything I've ever wanted in my life, but in the catalog that you're given as a freshman it actually says that the expected course of study is for five years. In other words, they do just about everything they can to get you to stay.
The experience of the military (ROTC and academies) is that four year degrees generally take four years to complete.

Note that not all ROTC cadets are on scholarships, though many are.

The only exceptions to the four year rule are generally for engineering programs.

Because the engineering schools themselves encourage a "4+" curriculum.

Correlation does not necessarily imply causality, but the answers to your questions may lie in the differences between the "typical" ROTC student and the "typical" non-ROTC student.

Particularly with respect to how they are incentivized . . .
Totally, horribly, wantonly OFF TOPIC:

Check out the new album by The Mouth of Mainstream Culture at my blog.

Not sure if this is gated or not, but here's some empirical research about time to degree.

I've helped with interviews (Advised the decision maker, but didn't make the decision). And in my experiences other factors are taken into account.

But, if your resume and interview indicate that you went to college as a full time student we'll consider how long it took. Why take someone that needed 6 years to learn what the next person learned in 4?

If you're smart your resume won't provide any such clues.

When other factors applied we considered them. In one case we a candidate was hired because they had to balance family school and a full time job.
For those who don't know the details, the reason engineering schools "encourage" a 4+ curriculum is that they generally require an absolute minimum of about 130 semester hours to graduate. The only way to do this in 4 years (and leave your last two summers open for internships) is to take 15 hours every semester and 10 more during your first summer. And that assumes you start in calculus and never take any elective class simply for its educational value.

If you don't start in calculus, or work cuts into the 50 to 60 hours per week attending class and doing homework for your engineering classes, this is really hard to pull off.
Question for Dean Dad:

What fraction of your FTIC students require at least one full semester of prep classes before they can take college level classes?
I remember one such Perpetual Student; at the end of his tenth year as an udergrad, the student paper rolled out a special issue. His reason for taking so long? He got involved in arts administration on campus and, more importantly, opted to take the courses he wanted, feeding the Elephant's Child in a way one seldom gets to do.

I took 5 1/2 years on the BA; focus was part of the problem (I didn't quite get around to declaring a major for 5 of those years, but somehow managed to read the catalog and satisfy the core requirements anyway) but work, and plenty of it, got in the way; I usually worked one or two jobs, at least one of which would be over 20hours per week. They didn't pay well but back then, at Midsize State U., full-time tuition for up to 20 credits was about 350 per semester. And the library was good--and underutilized. Sigh.

What do I tell my students who worry about not being able to finish "on time"? The truth: working full-time, with families, doesn't leave much slack for being a traditional student. So, they should figure out the load with which they're comfortable, enroll accordingly, and if their academic advisor tries to push 'em, I invite my students to pass along my phone number...and I promise to make nice.
As a dinosaur who took 5.5 (3 before and 2.5 after military service as a "guest" of the gov't.) I am appalled at the issue being an issue at all.

1. High schools are the first variable - >50% of entering students in the local school need at least 3 hours of remedial math or English, even among the "Top 10% admitters".
2. Scheduling courses for majors is a crap shoot in many schools - cost my daughter a YEAR when a Textiles instructor was ill and canceled a class required but offered once a year, in the summer.
3. I suspect that once someone wakes up and realizes that internet classes can be competency- and not calendar-based, it will bleed over into the campus, and at least some attempt at individual instruction will find its way into the curriculum.
4. I laugh at the University of Texas penalty fees for repeating classes, or staying for a 5th year, when it is the HS weakness and campus scheduling inefficiencies that are there own worst enemy.

It never stops amazing me that the physics class I took with a slide rule in hand is STILL taught in a 500 student lecture hall.
Good luck.
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