Monday, September 24, 2007

College: The Best Four Five Six Years of Your LIfe

Even as legislators in some states are trying to herd students through college at a faster rate, some people are taking even longer to graduate than before, according to an article by David Eisen on MSN Encarta last week:
If a student's formative years are spent in grammar school, then college is a time to exercise independence and--parents hope--choose a career path. But these days, a sizable amount of college students are taking as long to attain a college degree as it takes to jump from grammar school to junior high.

The four-year degree is largely a thing of the past. According to a 2006 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, less than 35 percent of students at "four-year colleges" are able to complete their bachelor's degree in four years or fewer. But most do graduate--more than 56 percent eventually get their B.A. within six years. The data was culled from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, which captured graduation rates of full-time undergraduate students beginning in 1998 from more than 6,500 institutions.
And it's not that everyone's sitting around being a slacker, either; as I've noted before, it has to do with rising tuition costs and more students having to work their way through school than before:
Mary Ann Swain, provost at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton, has seen a growing shift in the length of time it takes for a student to graduate[...]

"As the cost of an education has shifted from state-tax support to family contributions, it now takes more hours of work to provide the same proportion of the costs of one's education," she affirms. "Students who are working to support their college degrees seem to be carrying fewer credits per semester than before, and are working more hours. Thus, their college careers are lengthened."
According to Eisen, several factors may figure into the lengthened stay: Not enough room in classes that may only be offered once a year, an increase in double majors, co-op programs that split time between classes and work, and people taking a semester (or more) off to work.

But the universities are working to try and speed up the process:
While reasons for the longer stints at college vary, colleges and universities are working hard to make improvements so that lagging students aren't using up the space that can be given to new enrollments. At the University of Connecticut's (UConn) Storrs campus, only about 50 percent of students graduate in four years or fewer. To improve those numbers, UConn launched the Finish in Four initiative in 2004 to ensure that courses were available to students who needed to take them, as well as to improve and increase communication between students and advisers to keep them on track.
As the article points out, it can also be expensive for students to remain in school longer than the usual time, but, as more students are financing school on their own, there will have to be more cooperation between students, colleges and financial aid officers to get people out in a shorter time.

Yet sometimes, a shorter time is not beneficial. The music degree that I received in college was four years only on paper; the number of single-credit classes that met for two or three hours a week and the amount of practicing required makes extended stays almost the norm. As I said in the earlier post,
I think I'm particularly sensitive in this area because of the way musicians learn their craft. While most traditional academic degrees consist of four to six three-credit courses every semester, the bulk of music courses only earn one credit (despite sometimes meeting as often as four hours a week, in the case of many ensembles). The solution would certainly not lie in increasing the credit hours of those classes to match the "contact hours," because that would push most semesters into credit overload: an average schedule would balloon to 21+ hours, which would be cost-prohibitive for most students. But even under the current system, an 18-credit semester would probably consist of ten or eleven classes, as compared to the six taken by "regular" students whose classes are all worth three credits. Sometimes, that's just too much.

Besides, music (and this goes for most of the other arts, I'm sure) is something that isn't necessarily learned on a schedule. Getting the degree doesn't necessarily ensure that one's playing (or singing/acting/painting) is exactly where it needs to be; that extra semester could be the time when everything finally solidifies.
So I'm fully in favor of things that can keep people from having to work so much to get through college, and I have little sympathy for the slackers, but I hope that legislators and college leaders don't paint everyone with the same broad brush; sometimes people are taking their time for a very good reason.

Don't know much about history: Meanwhile, a recent study finds that college students aren't doing too well in the area of history and civic literacy. Among the problem areas: Less than half of college seniors knew that Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution or that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion. The repoirt doesn't just fault the students; it also blames colleges (and high schools, for that matter) for not doing enough to add to their civic literacy.

Take five: Has anyone out there seen the new $5 bill yet? I'm sure the changes will help combat counterfeiting for a while, but the purple printing makes it look even more like Monopoly money.

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