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Pacing Higher Education

04 Sep Posted by in Academics | 1 comment

One of the challenging aspects of this moment in higher education involves how to respond to the various criticisms of the system without, on the one hand, throwing out achievements of real value or, on the other, appearing like a self-interested reactionary. The notion of accelerating a college degree, making it three years rather than four, is an obvious case in point. All of us, in administrative positions, now regularly receive articles about three-year degree plans from friends or observers with the implication, at least, that we should be getting off our duffs and doing something similar.

On the one hand, the challenge makes some sense, and Mason will be responding. Students do come in, often, with college-level credits. Historically, most of them have nevertheless spent a conventional amount of time in college, because they were interested, or had demanding double majors, whatever. And, without disparaging Advanced Placement or other college courses taken in high school, there is always a bit of worry that they aren’t quite college level, despite the credits they bear. But in the interests of saving money or getting on with things, more students may start cashing in the credits rather than sticking around for a full standard program. We also expect some growing interest in better use of summer-school opportunities, including starting after high school graduation rather than waiting until fall; and we’ll be highlighting some relevant summer offerings accordingly. A number of students have already navigated through Mason in three years, through various combined strategems, and we’ll be charting how this can work in various specific programs. (We’re also working very actively on combining Masters work with achievements in college, with a lot of student interest resulting,  but I admit this is peripheral to the main acceleration discussion right now.)

On the other hand, the notion of simply reducing credits, making a three-year degree really easy, makes little sense to me. I have not seen much sign that secondary education has stepped up in new ways. I have not seen much sign that knowledge requirements are diminishing. I doubt that three-year degrees will qualify for graduate work — we already face this problem in dealing with many graduates of Indian universities. Of course a diploma may be achieved, but I honestly worry that its viability in a complex global economy may prove to be highly flawed.

So: providing more visibility to options for various college paces — accelerated, but also more prolonged in combination with relevant employment — makes a lot of sense, and we will be doing this actively. The acceleration path won’t save tuition money, but it will save on other costs and of course allows quicker job market entry. But outright dilution strikes me as a truly misplaced panic reaction to the current economic crisis. College-lite is not a healthy addition to the higher ed menu.