US split on year's squeeze

June 27, 1997

THE traditional American university and college commencement season, with all of the accompanying colour, pomp and ceremony, is in full swing. But try not to blink or you may miss it.

College and university graduations in the United States are arriving earlier and earlier each year as the average length of the school year shrinks.

The academic year has fallen by nearly six weeks, from 191 days in 1964 to 156 days in 1994, according to the National Association of Scholars. By comparison, most American kindergarten, elementary and high school students are required to spend 180 days a year in their schools.

The length of the average class period also has fallen, from more than 57 minutes to less than 54, the association reports.

"The conclusion has to be that students are simply learning less," said Gary Crosby Brasor, the NAS's associate director and a former professor of French literature. "In terms of the actual number of contact hours, they are spending four years in college getting an education that would have taken three years in 1964."

Dr Brasor says the reason is pure economics: "Schools are trying to maximise revenue and minimise costs." Even as the schools cut six weeks from their schedules, they have increased their average tuition fee by 295 per cent.

School years started shrinking in the 1970s, when rising energy costs forced campuses to lengthen their winter vacations. Many of the universities and colleges later also lengthened summer sessions to accommodate the changing demographics of their clientele as more students attended school part-time but went year-round or took a full load of classes in the summer to accelerate their graduation.

The universities argue that they are simply teaching more efficiently. "The traditional notion that learning took place in the classroom and through reading and writing assignments based on seat time is passe," said David Merkowitz, spokesman for the American Council on Education, the main national association of colleges and universities. "If anything, higher education is behind the curve on this, as we still tend to measure how much you learn by the time you spend in the seat."

Rather than attending lectures, students now chat with their professors on-line or use other types of information technology, allowing for a shorter school year, Mr. Merkowitz said. "The likelihood is that, in many schools, they are going to spend less time in the classroom than they used to."

As for the students, they have yet to raise a chorus of complaint as they are hurried through their abbreviated graduation process in the early spring and get a head- start on careers or summer jobs.

"Students at schools that stay in session into June complain since they miss out on the summer job market," Mr Merkowitz added.

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