The Arizona Desert Lamp

Encouraging three year degrees

Posted in Campus, Education Policy by Evan Lisull on 15 July 2009

Graduating EarlyThe AP has a story on the three-year degree, and unfortunately the UA’s own Roxie Catts speaks out against the idea:

But critics say shaving the fourth year off college could limit a student’s social experience and provide a narrower education.

“From a financial standpoint, particularly in these economic times, it’s a great deal,” said Roxie Catts, an academic adviser at the University of Arizona. But that would mean sacrificing some general education courses, she said — “the things that get you out of your comfort zone and stick with you for life.”

As director of advising, Ms. Catts should know that no matter how soon you graduate, everyone is required to conquer the INDV-TRAD-NATS Chimera, fulfilling the same minimum of 35 units. The only way a student takes less gen-ed courses than the given amount is if they test out of them, via an AP test in high school. It would be surprising if Ms. Catts were advocating towards more mediocrity in Arizona’s already abysmal high schools. Unfortunately, this attitude seems to be shared by university administrators elsewhere:

Another student at a four-year college who figured out how finish in three was Charles Jacobson, 20, who graduated this year in business at Skidmore College. He credits good planning and not AP courses. “Halfway through my freshman year, I had all my courses planned out,” Jacobson said.

He was motivated to get a business degree after a summer job with a pet store in high school. He recalls going to the Skidmore registrar’s office and posing the idea of a degree in three years.

“The first thing they asked me was, are you sure you want to do that? I said yes, and here is my plan.”

In fact, universities have gone further in normalizing “out-in-five” than they have “out-in-three.” As the piece points out:

Only 4.2 percent of U.S. undergraduates earned bachelor’s degrees in three years, according to the most recent statistics from the Education Department. The average student spends six years to get a degree at a public university and 5.3 years at a private institution, according to the College Board.

These stats indicate the unfortunate tendency towards over-consumption, rather than under-consumption. One might cynically remark that this is a profit-maximizing tendency on the part of the university – “milk ’em for as much as they got” – but the unnecessary retention of students also leads to overly crowded classes and other resources, reducing spots available for underclassmen and the overall quality of the school. There’s a reason that the university has penalties for exceeding the 145 unit limit – where 120 units is the bare minimum for a BA.

Yet excess fees alone serve only to punish students that take up Ms. Catts offer and explore something outside of one’s comfort zone, and on a small scale encourage students who have switched majors multiple times to simply drop out rather than incurring the hefty $60+ per-unit fee ($115+ for out-of-state students). In concert with these charges, the UA should be proactive in proposing three year offerings, especially to students in Honors and on scholarship. Rather than questioning the decision-making ability of students like Jacobson, advisers should encourage these sorts of plans – after all, even if things don’t work out, the student still will probably graduate in four. This is a far preferable path than lackadaisically shooting for four years, only to be stuck for an additional semester after forgetting a GenEd.

The school could also restructure scholarships and financial aid to be delivered over the course of three years, rather than four. Keeping funds constant, this would serve to either make annual offerings more generous (full-ride and books, for instance), or to expand the total number of students receiving the aid. Students who are given four year scholarships tend to stay for a full four years.

Further, the school should exempt from the excess fee units that were earned elsewhere – community college, placement tests, or other transfers. Given the UA’s comparatively lenient transfer credit policies, these policies together could actually be a selling point for prospective students with an eye on post-baccalaureate studies. “Come to the UA: Save Money, and get a Research 1 degree in Three!” Perhaps this casts the UA undergraduate as a stepping stone – but sacrificing a little bit of pride could go a long way in allowing the UA to compete with top schools around the country

NB: One last, semi-related note – this “soak the out-of-staters” strategy is getting out of control [but switch the labels – it’s $1,500 for 12+ units, not $12+ for 1,500 units. Apologies – EML]:

There’s absolutely no reason for this. If the goal is to discourage super-seniors, an in-state student takes up exactly as much room in a class as an out-of-state student. As if that weren’t enough, the out-of-state surcharge for taking 7 units is inexplicably less than that for taking 6 units.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Ethan Hurd

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3 Responses

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  1. Dave said, on 16 July 2009 at 8:56 pm

    6 years 4 lyfe

  2. Jesse Gunsch said, on 29 July 2009 at 11:50 am

    Random data point for you: I’m on a full-ride scholarship. I could easily finish my Engineering degree in three years (had lots of AP credit coming in), but instead I’m taking four years and completing three majors. Why? Because I’m getting more money out of the scholarship than my cost of basic living + attendance is. And fortunately the 145+ units surcharge doesn’t apply if you are pursuing multiple degrees.

    The College Board’s statistic about students taking six years on average is quite ridiculous. I had no idea it had gotten that bad. But when the universities continue getting that tuition money, it all makes sense. What’s our school’s priority here? Oh, right. It’s even more pathetic when you consider that we have a ~25% freshman dropout rate.

    Also, from the last blog post: “If any readers out there are interested in getting involved…” Shoot me an email if you get a chance–not sure where yours is. I assume you have mine via this form.

  3. […] transformation process sitting on their hands, and Advising Center Director Roxie Catts openly advocating against the […]


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