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04 April 2013

College, Graduation, and Timing

When people talk about graduation and retention rates, they're also inevitably concerned with timely graduation, and rightly so. We don't do our students any favors by allowing them to languish in limbo, hanging around our halls for five, six, or more years. The logical extension, then, has been to encourage early graduation. At my institution, there are several majors that are redesigning their programs to facilitate three-year degrees (which invariably include online coursework, something I've taken up here and will likely revisit in the future) and even some that allow students to finish both a bachelors and a masters in four years. All of this, I think, raises an important question: do the economic benefits of graduating college early outweigh the social benefits of a traditional four-year college experience? Here are the things we'd need to quantify (assuming eventual completion of the degree) to be able to make the calculation:
  • What is the average overall cost, including lost wages, of a year of undergraduate education?
  • What are the long-term social benefits of an average year of undergraduate education?
    • What is the economic value of the average social tie made in college?
      • e.g. What is the value of generating a social network capable of creating career opportunities?
    • What is the economic value of an additional year of emotional, psychological, and social maturity?
    • What is the economic value of an additional year of memories (both fond and ill) from a unique and unrepeatable period in one's lifecourse?
I hope that it's obvious that most of the concepts in the tail end of that list are not (easily) quantifiably operationalizable. In other words, you can't put a dollar amount on your experiences, memories, or friendships, all things that are truncated by early graduation. My point is that while the economic costs of higher education are important considerations, the social benefits of higher education are equally--if not more--important, and while we may not be able to force them into a mathematical equation, that does not mean that they shouldn't be part of students' decision-making process. (That was tough for a quantitative sociologist to write. ;) )


  1. I completed my BA in three years. I took three college courses at my local community college while in high school (night school), didn't declare a major until I was sure (so I took only gen eds my first year) and then opted for sociology (which required exatly 120 hours). I think I graduated with 121 or 122 hours. I immediately went to graduate school. I don't feel like I missed out on anything by finishing in three instead of four years, but then I attended a big state school, where most of the people I new as a freshman either transferred or dropped out by the time I graduated. I immediately went to graduate school, where I was the youngest and was constantly made aware of my age. In hindsight, I probably should have taken a year to do something else, but I had no idea what that would have been and would have lost my health insurance coverage. Either way, I am glad I do not have additional undergrad debt just to do college as it "should be" done in four years.

    Now that I am teaching at a community college, I can see a strong appeal for redesigning some programs to last three years instead of four or longer. I have students who are on the fence about transferring and think if they new it could take just one more year instead of at least two, they might be more motivated to transfer. Three-year programs are probably not ideal for all students or all degrees, but do think they have a place. After all, isn't the four-year degree just a social construction?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Stephanie. My argument was not that four years is important as a matter of convention or institution but that there may be real social benefits that outweigh the economic costs. There are, of course, a lot of variable moving around there.