Sunday, March 13, 2005

"Professional Students," or Students Learning a Profession?

Once again, the Texas Legislature has come up with a bill to try and move students through undergraduate school more quickly than many of them are doing nowadays. It's a better effort than their previous attempt, but it still ignores the reality of attending college in this day and age:
Students lollygagging at Texas public universities are costing taxpayers money and taking up space in the state's already crowded flagship universities, lawmakers and university administrators say.

The Senate subcommittee on higher education Monday approved a bill aimed at moving students into a cap and gown more quickly by allowing public universities to adopt a flat-rate tuition to encourage students to take more classes each semester.

"It's doable, but we have to motivate students to want to do it," said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who wrote the bill and earned her first bachelor's degree in 2 ½ years while married and working. "I think it's become acceptable in Texas for students to take five or six years or more to complete degree requirements."
As always, read the whole thing.

Now, first of all, with all due respect to Sen. Zaffirini, two-and-a-half years is a freakishly short time to finish a degree. She may have been a Doogie Howser-type, but the real world can't be held to that sort of standard. Secondly, I doubt that most of the students who have extended their time in college are actually "lollygagging." It's far more likely that they're working, which, granted, is probably a foreign concept to people whose "job" only meets for a few months every other year (i.e. Texas state legislators). If you're working, you don't often have time to take quite as many credits during a semester--at least if you want to excel at both your studies and your job(s). A four-year degree has become pretty much a myth anyway for anyone who is not on a full academic ride (and a four-year music education degree existed only on paper even when I was in undergrad school...but more on that in a minute). Sure, there are people who mindlessly drift through college, changing majors three or four times in the process, but most of the fifth- and sixth-year collegians aren't slacking, they're surviving.

A little later on, the article mentions this:
The board says students who complete their education in four years typically take 130 hours while those who finish in six years take 166 hours.
And that's a problem? I don't have my transcript in front of me, but I'm reasonably sure that my music-ed undergrad was in excess of 130 hours on paper, ignoring for the moment the extra coursework I took to enrich myself and make myself a better musician and teacher. (That same degree is 139 hours at the minimum nowadays.) My best friend Halfling's undergrad jazz studies degree plan is nearly 140 hours on paper, and that doesn't even include things like ensembles and lessons, which are taken every semester.

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.

And the Legislature itself hasn't exactly helped matters either, seeing has how they've browbeaten the universities to add a bunch of extra courses to the curriculum, mostly in the area of "multiculturalism" or "diversity." So they're making people take more stuff and then complaining that it takes longer; aren't these the same folks who turn around and complain about the "unfunded mandates" that the federal government foists upon the states at nearly every turn? There's not much of a difference, if you ask me.

I will give the Lege credit for one thing, though; at least this bill is structured as a reward (by making tuition cheaper for taking more hours), rather than a punishment (the last time they tried this, the object was, if I recall correctly, to triple the tuition for students after they'd taken a certain number of credits [still searching for the link to verify that]).

At any rate, this bill, if enacted, may actually help some people finish their degrees a little sooner. I just hope the legislators understand that not everyone who's taking a longer-than-usual time in college (and maybe it's time to redefine "usual") is "lollygagging." Sometimes, they're not "professional students" but simply students learning a profession.

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