Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Three Year Degree - Ingenious or Falling Short?

The cost of a college degree continues to rise. One might think this is incentive enough to get through as quickly as possible. On the contrary, the national average for students graduating college within six years is only 53%. While this graduation rate is disturbing, it does not tell the whole story. Some extend their stay to balance work and school, the former a necessity in order to be able to afford the tuition costs. Others have fallen victim to budget cuts and class schedule reductions, making it more difficult to register for and complete required courses on time.

Despite the trend towards extending one’s colleges years, programs are becoming more prevalent at universities around the country which offer the opportunity to earn a degree in three years. These programs are not for everyone yet their proponents claim that the benefits are multiple: students save on tuition, room and board, colleges achieve better utilization of their resources by offering classes year round and graduation rates improve.

With cost pressures driving many decisions today, several colleges, including University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY and the University of Illinois now offer a three year degree. To ensure timely graduation, these programs generally include priority registration and special advising to the students which enable them to adhere to a tight timetable and to stay focused. Bate College in Lewiston, Maine has offered the three year degree since 1965, yet to date few students have actually taken advantage of it.

Proponents cite the cost advantages for students and more rapid turnover for universities as students earn degrees in a shorter period of time. Those in support of these programs also believe they will force positive changes in curriculum as colleges seeks ways to cover a multitude of subjects in a more condensed time frame. This, they profess, will lead to a greater emphasis on inter-disciplinary learning.

The three year degree is clearly not for everyone. Students who benefit must be prepared to step onto the fast track. Often workloads are heavy and schedules require year round attendance to finish within three years. Are you prepared to declare a major after your first year? Forget the three year degree if you want to explore a variety of subjects before making that decision. It is also not a practical route for those who must work to support themselves through college.

Critics question the practicality of three year programs when students already have a tough time finishing in four. Three year programs also challenge the very essence of the college experience which goes beyond academics alone. Students who finish in three will have limited time, if any, to participate in extra-curricular activities and take part in many of the social aspects which some might argue are a primary component of college life. Students would also be forced to forgo pursuing courses out of sheer interest, since the truncated time schedule will restrict the ability to explore. Last but not least, some question whether the three year degree serves the needs of the market, where employers are placing new demands on college graduates. Having a specific skill is often not what those hiring really want to see. Today’s business leaders are redefining the necessary core skills for success, e.g., global and inter-cultural awareness, teamwork and problem solving skills, ethical reasoning, critical thinking and decision making capabilities. Will a rush to get through in three years short change students in these areas? There is no doubt that some serious curriculum re-design must be part of any trend to finish college in record time.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tour d'Admission - My Reflections

After months of anticipation and training, I find it difficult to believe that the southern California college cycling tour has come and gone, at least for this rider (a few of my colleagues have continued on for another week). The experience, not surprisingly, was about more than just visiting colleges. I anticipated good cycling, informative college visits and the pleasure of traveling with a group of likeminded, adventuresome college counselors. Even with that expectation, the high that I am still on, 4 days into my return, feels bigger than just the joys of a good trip. For the past few days I have been asking myself what made this experience so different from other college visits, vacations and travel I have done. Tonight as I sat down to write this posting, not exactly sure where I would take it, an answer came to me: I feel like I just had my own mini college experience.

On Sunday night, July 4th, 17 strangers came together on the campus of the University of the Redlands in the California town of the same name. We arrived in shifts throughout the day, got our dorm room assignments, and met suitemates and fellow cyclists. Once we were all settled in, we gathered for an outdoor “icebreaker” pizza party on an unseasonably cool night for July (June Gloom one month late, we were repeatedly told). We were also treated to the truly spectacular Redlands fireworks display, complete with skydivers and musical entertainment.

Still on east coast time, many of us retired early, spending our first of several nights in university housing. The following day we had to be awake and alert for our morning tour of the University of Redlands, followed by our first venture out on the bikes. I’m speculating that a good handful of us were a little anxious in anticipation of our first ride together, a 45 trip to our next destination, the Claremont Colleges. Remember the odd sensation of excitement mixed with nerves during the first few days of college? I guess you can say that some of us were experiencing those uneasy emotions all over again.

Over the course of the next few days we all found our “bike” legs and started to feel comfortable with each other. We were truly an eclectic group, coming from virtually every region of the country and bringing along a variety of backgrounds and experiences. However, we quickly came to appreciate our differences, quirks, and senses of humor. We stopped and helped each other when panniers fell off unexpectedly on the road, tires went flat, or in the case of yours truly, the resident diabetic, a stop for some sugar refueling was in order. Cycling on long, high traffic thoroughfares, through Los Angeles city streets at rush hour and up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, we learned what it meant to take responsibility for ourselves, as well as help and look out for others. Some of us sported scrapes and scars from minor mishaps (I took the award for most falls off the bike from a stationery position…those darn clip-ins!). One of our members gave the rest of us a good scare, ending up in the hospital with dehydration on the last night. We all heaved a sigh of relief the next morning to learn the cause of her fainting, and see her regain color and her smile. Unfortunately, she and another companion finished the last leg in a car rather than on bikes with the rest of us, but were there to meet us at each stop along the way.

I made wonderful new friends on this trip, just like my college experience, and we are already talking about our reunion at the annual NACAC conference in the fall as well as the location of next year’s college cycling trip. As I reflect on the past week and feel this amazing sense of accomplishment, I also think about the experience of going off to college. It’s about taking responsibility for oneself and sometimes for others. College is a time to learn and explore new things, as we did on our college visits, to make choices, individually and collectively, be flexible and open to the unexpected and seek the opportunities to expand one’s horizons. I’ll go out on a limb and include our farewell lunch at the In and Out Burger as just that type of mind and palate expanding experience!

We all recorded our trip with photos, mine taken on my Blackberry, and our trip has been immortalized in Jacques Steinberg’s NY Times blog, The Choice, which of course was a thrill for all of the riders. (http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/ But the best part of this experience are the feelings and memories that pictures and blogs can’t fully capture. They are just the thoughts that make one feel good all over again when the mind momentarily wonders back there.