Perpetual students warned

March 8, 1996

Students who linger over their degrees in southern and western states of the United States may face penalties if they fail to complete their studies within the traditional four years.

Most US students typically take more than the four years. They are required to amass about 120 credit hours for a bachelor's degree.They can reach graduation in four years by taking about four courses, worth three or four credit hours each, every semester.

But critics have long complained that the system emphasises "seat time" over real measures of academic competence. On average students take longer, and build up more credit hours, than they strictly need to do.

The charge now levelled at the so-called "super seniors" who remain at university for five years or more is that they are blocking access for the next generation of students and eating up public funds.

In an attempt to increase the speed of graduation, and squeeze students back into a four-year schedule, Florida State University has led several public colleges, including the University of California, in asking students to sign a contract agreeing to do their courses on time. Florida's board of regents last week recommended following the universities of North Carolina and Montana in a more draconian measure: imposing a tuition surcharge on students who take more classes than they need before they graduate. States from Arizona to Maryland are considering similar financial incentives to hurry along graduation.

Even as far back as 1972, the freshman class of that year earned about 126 credit hours, roughly two courses more than required, according to Department of Education figures. Ten years later they were adding up about 140 credit hours. Figures for the class of 1992 are not yet available.

In the boom years, it did not matter that young people were in theory learning more than they needed to - it might even have been considered a good thing. But tight budgets and a degree of political impatience are prompting local politicians, particularly in state legislatures, to ask sharp questions about what students are doing at universities and how they are doing it, and in particular how much it costs.

Cheryl Blanco, policy director of the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education, a consortium representing 15 western states based in Colorado, said slow graduation rates have been a problem for several years.

Some argue that the state is subsidising them to stay out of the job market with each extra credit hour they take. They say there are tens of millions of dollars to be saved on a state-by-state basis. Students may indeed stay longer because they are reluctant to face the "real world", while others add time and may lose credits earned when they transfer from one college to another or change majors. But there are other factors: students now are often older, courses are more expensive, and rather than run up large loans many choose to support themselves with part- or full-time jobs.

"Degree inflation" is also blamed for late graduation. Over time, faculties have tacked on extra courses to degree programmes, and many states are demanding that departments and universities look at course requirements and narrow them down.

While four-year "contracts" have been a popular option, they have had only limited success, forcing universities to look at tougher measures. At the University of California at Irvine, the "Go For Four" programme only persuaded some 25 of nearly 3,000 freshmen to sign up last year. The new rhetoric aimed at slow graduation rates appears to clash with reformers who are trying to get away from the conventional four-year, one-campus model. Several state universities are stressing retraining and distance education via the information highway, rather than hurrying students through their degrees.

But while there are "lots of reasons why students take longer to get through college," Ms Blanco said, "it certainly doesn't get any cheaper the longer they are there. With the economic constraints, the cuts that many states have imposed on budgets for higher education, there are just fewer dollars to go around."

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