Monday, June 08, 2015



I didn’t expect to read about a three year degree at Wesleyan.  When higher ed types talk about accelerating the process of degree completion, they’re usually referring to less selective -- and often less expensive -- places.  Elites are typically assumed to be perfect just the way they are.

Which suggests, among other things, that the economic argument for acceleration isn’t entirely what it seems to be.  A single year at Wesleyan costs far more than an entire degree at a community college.  If it were truly all about cost, you’d think the trend would have started at the top of the food chain, where college costs the most.  It didn’t.

Acceleration is a plausible answer to a host of questions.  It can keep students from getting lost on the way to completion.  It can reduce cost.  It can force a kind of focus, which has obvious academic benefits.  Done right -- which is to say, when it’s routinized -- it can make juggling outside life variables easier.  At a really basic level, very few outside jobs function on the academic seasonal calendar; moving to a twelve-month calendar can make it easier for some working adults to make it through.  Continuity can be a virtue.

That said, something about “rush the proles through while the elites take their sweet time” doesn’t sit right.

Part of the rush to get students through, I think, is driven by the mismatch between student loan debt and entry-level pay. But the really eye-popping student debt loads don’t typically occur at community or state colleges.  The median debt load of an HCC graduate last year was zero.  The wage problem is a wage problem, not a tuition problem.  To the extent that public colleges have increased tuition over the last several years, the root cause is simple enough.

Acceleration can help with student success.  Some of it is based on outrunning life.  The longer that students take, the more opportunities arise for life to get in the way.  That’s probably why our course completion rate in the January Intersession period are always well into the nineties, which is off the charts for community colleges generally.  When courses are so short, life doesn’t have time to intervene.  Students don’t have time to fall behind.

Some of the push to accelerate is clearly to the good.  To the extent that colleges spell out, say, that defining “full time” as 12 credits means not graduating on time, I see all upside.  Constructing course sequences in clear enough ways that real students could really take them, similarly, is an unalloyed good.

I’m less sold, though, on the version of acceleration that asks high school students to identify a career goal.  Yesterday’s IHE piece on transfer made mention of “endorsements” that high school students in Texas are supposed to make in the ninth grade, picking a general field of study.  That seems awfully early to me, and it seems to take for granted a level of field awareness (and of self-awareness) that I’d be surprised to find prevalent in ninth graders.  Yes, it’s more efficient when students know from day one exactly what they want to do.  But I’d hate to sacrifice exploration entirely, locking students into pathways based on decisions made before they could drive.  

Instead, I’d love to see more instruction in high school that gives students exposure to lots of different real-world occupations before asking them to choose.  Inform the choice first.  Fill in the cultural capital that the better-off kids get at home as a matter of course.  Once they have a basic sense of their options, committing to one becomes less random.  

Acceleration done right is too good an idea to become a marker of lower-class status.  I’m surprised to see Wesleyan try it, though not surprised that very few students took them up on it. They don’t have to.  They have the luxury of time.  I hope that doesn’t become the latest marker of status.  We have enough of those already.

Re: The Texas 9th graders designating a particular field of study.

I think it would be interesting for commenters here to tell us what they thought they'd be when they started high school, and what they would up doing. And I';; go first.

I thought I'd go to law school and eventually go into electoral politics.

I got a Ph.D. in economics and taught for 40 years.
In 9th grade, I wanted to be a fighter pilot.

Wound up with a PhD in chemistry.

The costs of a Wesleyan degree were outstripping the benefits, this is really an attempt to cut the sticker price by 25% while saving face.

I live about ten miles from Wesleyan. A few years ago, I gave a lift to Wesleyan cyclist with a flat tire. He was a senior, about to graduate. He told me that Wesleyan had not matched his expectations, its was far more politically correct and, shall we say, strict in enforcing its liberal orthodoxy. He had majored in philosophy. He didn't exactly regret it, but he readily admitted it wasn't going to help him career-wise. He planned next to join some friends in his home town who had started a restaurant.

Anyway. A recurring issue at UConn is the high number of students taking 5 years to graduate. From what I hear, it's sometimes not the student's fault, the University is not offering enough slots in required courses to allow timely completion by many students. Juniors frequently discover the next course in their sequence is full before they can apply. Suddenly, the "bargain price" of UConn got 25% higher for some families.

If Wesleyan can reliably get students to completion in three years with a well-structured and administered plan, they will have a product that many parents and students will want to consider. And it won't be just for the "proles." It will more likely be for those who want to get to graduate school quicker.
I work at an "elite" and I've seen an increasing number of students self-accelerating. Lots more AP credits, lots more summer school credits - maxing out the transfers from the community college back home, and so forth. Consequently, that means lots more students finishing in three years for 120-hour non-engineering degrees and four years for 132-hour engineering degrees. When asked, every single student says it is about the money.
In 9th grade, I wanted to either be a mathematician or study computer science. I became a theoretical computer scientist, a mix of both.
In 9th grade, I wanted to be sports journalist. I earned an MA in history. I have worked for nearly 30 years in higher ed administration.
In 8th grade, I remember writing a report on what I wanted to be - which was a biochemist. Except I had no idea what that actually was (and certainly didn't after writing the report). I'm an ecologist.
I posted about this in response to a different topic last week, but my CC advertises a finish-your-two-year-degree-program-in-less-than-two-years deal that I'm surprised I haven't seen more widely used.

Students who are full-time in the fall semester get to attend the winter session for free. Likewise, students who are full-time in the spring semester get to attend the summer sessions for free. I believe that they can also use the combination to reach full-time status (e.g., someone who takes 9 credits in the fall and 6 in the winter can just pay the full-time student fee instead of two part-time per credit fees). In order for this to work, we bill students a combined fall/winter tuition and a combined spring/summer tuition; this had the added bonus of letting students use financial aid year-round because the aid the covers the spring tuition bill is actually really covering the tuition for both spring and summer.

While nearly every institution has a summer session and many have winter sessions, our winter and summer session are unique in that (1) you have more financial aid options because of the way we count them in billing and (2) they're effectively free if you take enough credits.
In 9th grade, I wanted to be an outlaw hacker with mutant powers.

I own a bike shop.

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