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.