Should We Pay Students to Graduate?

College is supposed to last four years, right? However, only 31 percent of entering freshmen at U.S. colleges and universities manage to graduate in four years, and only 53 percent obtain their bachelor’s degrees within six years. Indeed, the six-year figure–which typically entails a 50 percent increase in overall tuition–has become so common that it’s basically standard. The numbers are so embarrassing that some universities have resorted to paying their students to graduate on time, typically via forgiven loans, tuition discounts, and scholarships for those maintaining a full load of courses.

Why don’t most students graduate when they’re supposed to? Some must work and can’t take a full load every semester. Some switch majors at the last minute or decide to major in two fields–which is fine if they or their parents can afford it. Sometimes it’s the school’s fault: Overcrowded public universities are notorious for failing to offer required courses (or enough sections of them) in workable sequences so that students can complete their majors efficiently. As the Fiscal Times reports, a single missing prerequisite can cost a student an entire year. The simple expedient of operating colleges (or at least offering key basic courses) on a year-around basis, recommended by the nonprofit Complete College America, would help eliminate those obstacles to timely graduation.

It would be even more helpful to offer students some academic structure, now sorely lacking at nearly every college in America. Complete College America found that four-year students, who normally need 120 credits (15 per semester) to graduate, are actually amassing an average 136.5 credits apiece, more than a full semester’s worth. As the Fiscal Times pointed out, they’re encouraged by course catalogues to fritter their time away on goofball courses such as “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” (the University of South Carolina, Columbia) or “Harry Potter: Finding Your Patronus” (Oregon State University). 

How about reintroducing the tightly structured core curricula that were a hallmark of U.S. universities until the 1970s? Instead of indulging at today’s smorgasbord of piecemeal “area” requirements, students would spend their first two years with a limited menu of humanities, science, and math courses designed to give them the broad-based learning that every college graduate should possess, and the next two years following equally structured pathways through a major and minor. Not every student would graduate on time–but the idea of college as consisting of four years and no more would likely become a reality for many more of them. 



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