One of the problems with decisions is we sometimes make them before we’re ready. Sometimes we’ve forced ourselves into a box. Sometimes we entered that box with a skip and a smile. Sometimes it’s been a full-court press to please the iconic self. But as the saying goes (or did I make this up?): Decide in haste, repent in leisure. Quite possibly, a few years down the line, we’ll look over our shoulders, second guess ourselves, and wished we’d opted for Door Number One, wondering what for the love of God were we thinking.
I bring this up not because of that Hefty bag full of extremely unfortunate clothing I donated to the Good Will this weekend — but because I just came across a Newsweek essay (and cover story) advocating a three year college degree.
I vote no, as in Absolutely Not.
I can think of any number of reasons why the argument, proposed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, former education secretary under the first Pres. Bush, is an idea that stinks. But chief among them is the fact that making a choice that you won’t regret in the morning is often a function of growing up. Which is, in good part, the work of higher education.
But sure, I get it. Three years versus four means saving a boatload of money when it comes to tuition and living expenses. For the vast majority of students, it means a smaller debt load tucked into the diploma. For most kids, that’s crucial. And yet. An accelerated degree means choosing a path at, oh, age 18. (Think back to your adolescent self — would you really want that person to dictate your grown-up life? Gives me the willies just to think.) Then sticking hard to the program for three years without a taste of anything else, and jumping into the real world at just about the same time you’re legal to order your first martini.
Hmmm. Can you even qualify for a lease on an apartment at that age without your parents to co-sign? I digress.
But let’s back up. Sure, the plan could work for some students, those super-focused and dedicated souls who knew they wanted to be doctors or lawyers or engineers when they were five and never blinked. College in three? Done! Straight to grad school? Yes! And more power to them. But most of us? Not so focused. Where’s the time for exploration? Reflection? Discovering passions? Isn’t that part of what college is all about?
What I see here is a recipe for regret. Or a return ticket to university life some ten years down the line. Undecided? Here we come.
But back to Alexander. Comparing American higher education to the auto industry (the comparison lost me. And took up far too much space. But…), he writes:
Yet, as with the auto industry in the 1960s, there are signs of peril within American higher education. It is true that the problem with car companies was monopoly, whereas U.S. colleges compete in a vibrant marketplace. Students, often helped by federal scholarships and loans, may choose among 6,000 public, private, nonprofit, for-profit, or religious institutions of higher learning. In addition, almost all of the $32 billion the federal government provides for university research is awarded competitively.
But as I discovered myself during my four-year tenure as president of the University of Tennessee in the late 1980s, in some ways, many colleges and universities are stuck in the past. For instance, the idea of the fall-to-spring “school year” hasn’t changed much since before the American Revolution, when we were a nation of farmers and students put their books away to work the soil during the summer. That long summer stretch no longer makes sense. Former George Washington University president Stephen J. Trachtenberg estimates that a typical college uses its facilities for academic purposes a little more than half the calendar year. “While college facilities sit idle, they continue to generate maintenance, energy, and debt-service expenses that contribute to the high cost of running a college,” he has written.
In other words, rush the kids through, and you make more cost-effective use of your campus? Ugh. He goes on:
Meanwhile, tuition has soared, leaving graduating students with unprecedented loan debt. Strong campus presidents to manage these problems are becoming harder to find, and to keep. In fact, students now stay on campus almost as long as their presidents. The average tenure of a college president at a public research university is seven years. The average amount of time students now take to complete an undergraduate degree has stretched to six years and seven months as students interrupted by work, inconvenienced by unavailable classes, or lured by one more football season find it hard to graduate.
Congress, acting with the best of intentions, has tried to help students with college costs through Pell Grants and other forms of tuition support. But some of their fixes have made the problem worse. The stack of congressional regulations governing federal student grants and loans now stands twice as tall as I do. One college president lamented to me that filling out these forms consumes 7 percent of every tuition dollar.
Oh, please. Interesting that Alexander should put it this way. I tend to wonder that, if indeed higher education is in crisis because of finances as he posits through out the piece, maybe the fix isn’t rushing students through, but rather, rethinking university priorities when it comes to allocating funds. For example: Show me a university intent on increasing applications, and I will show you an aviary full of cranes (it was a pun) and construction fences, as well as a battallion of gardeners. Or maybe, when it comes to funding, the feds and the states might think more in terms of education than, say, prisons or foreign governments. But I digress. Again.
Playing good cop-bad cop, Alexander does discuss the downside of the three-year degree, albeit in abbreviated form:
There are drawbacks to moving through school at such a brisk pace. For one, it deprives students of the luxury of time to roam intellectually. Compressing everything into three years also leaves less time for growing up, engaging in extracurricular activities, and studying abroad. On crowded campuses it could mean fewer opportunities to get into a prized professor’s class. Iowa’s Waldorf College has graduated several hundred students in its three-year-degree programs, but is now phasing out the option. Most Waldorf students wanted the full four-year experience—academically, socially, and athletically. And faculty members will be wary of any change that threatens the core curriculum in the name of moving students into the workforce.
As if intellectualy roaming or the core curriculum — programs that introduce students to thinkers and writers outside their specific area of study and, in many cases, is responsible for graduating students who are educated as well as trained — were irrelevant. Without it, where’s the context? The historical perspective? The ethics? As my father-in-law, a former professor of medicine at the University of Washington, and writer Ethan Canin (look him up) both said, med school should require training in more than science. But that’s beside the point.
The big issue, the one that transcends this whole debate, is the fact that when you’re in college, you learn. You open your mind. You think. You weigh. You expand. You make better choices. And that’s not just what you learn in the classroom. It takes time.
And growing up.