“On-time graduation.” The United States Department of Education wants it. Outside agencies monitor it. Countless higher education institutions strive to make it happen for their students. Who would possibly argue against it?
There are several arguments for on-time graduation. People who work through their program faster are usually more likely to graduate. Extending your program can sometimes cost more money in tuition, living expenses and other costs. Plus, people who graduate are less likely to default on their loans. As such, the time to graduation is a key metric used by Universities and reported to outside agencies.
Graduate, get a job, and pay off your loans. That is how it is supposed to work. At the same time, there is a dark side to the persistent push for people to complete “on-time.” As with all policies and practices, there are benefits, but there are also limitations. I’ll mention two.
The first relates to personalized time and pace for individual learners. On-time graduation works for the standard student with the standard circumstances, but as we strive to increase access and opportunity for higher education, a growing number of student are what might be considered non-standard. Some students would benefit from taking longer while others might benefit from a shortened program or faster pace to completion. There are dozens of possible factors to consider, but when on-time graduation is a key metric, it drives schools to push some students to work through the program more quickly that would be ideal for them.
80% of traditional, full-time undergraduate students are working. The number that works full-time has consistently increased over the past decades, and there is no sign that this increase is reversing. This is in addition to the large number of non-traditional students who balance school with work, family and other responsibilities. Given such conditions, is a push to completion in a set timeframe always the best for optimal learning?
Second, too much of a focus on graduating in a set time risks nurturing a culture of earning over learning. “Hurry up and finish” is competing with “Pursue deep and substantive learning.” I’ve written about how a culture of earning (the grade, diploma, etc.) over a culture where learning is valued and prioritized is problematic. A culture of learning nurtures more competent and confident graduates. A culture of earning, on the other hand, places the focus upon jumping through academic hoops. It diminishes student perceived value for things like academic rigor and achievement. Logically, this also increases the likelihood of academic integrity issues. After all, if it is just about getting the credential, it matters less what you know or the hard work. Just do what it takes to get finished.
I have led and supported countless accelerated undergraduate and graduate programs. Some have students working through three credit classes in as few and six weeks, while many others are working through in eight weeks, half the time of most three credit graduate courses ten years ago. This is a trend in many Universities for many reasons. It sometimes meets the needs of adult learners better than full-term courses. Second, it allows more credits sold for a University, increasing the tuition revenue in a given year. Third, it increases the number of students who persist and graduate. These are all realities and reasonable considerations for contemporary higher education. They are part of the new normal in many institutions. At the same time, these changes are not without losses. It just isn’t possible for most students to read as much, reflect as much, or go on as deep of a dive into certain topics as happened when courses where fifteen or sixteen weeks long.
I’m one of the first to challenge the need to maintain a traditional 15-week semester or the use of the existing credit hour system. At the same time, a commitment to consider both the affordances and limitations of given changes in higher education forces me to look at such changes candidly. Time and pace matter when it comes to learning. Changing either will impact on learners, not to mention what it taught and how it is taught.
There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with the concept of on-time graduation. In fact, it has many benefits. For example, there are sometimes impressive results that come from cohort approaches to education where groups of learners progress through a program together, at a reasonable pace and time-frame. In addition, I’ve yet to see solid research indicating that condensing programs or pushing students through programs more quickly results in decreased competence or post-graduation work performance. At the same time, it is not without risks and we want to make sure that our policies and processes do not unnecessarily decrease access and opportunity to the people who need “non-standard” time and pace. The more we mitigate against these risks, considering the value of a culture of learning as well as opportunity for personalized time and pace of learning, the more we increase access and opportunity for a broader spectrum of students.