Is There a Dark Side of On-Time Graduation?

“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.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

One Reply to “Is There a Dark Side of On-Time Graduation?”

  1. Robert Columbia

    I am one of those people who has rarely finished an educational program “on time”. II am also one of those people who wants to “Pursue deep and substantive learning” instead of banging out two papers a week in “accelerated” classes that sap the motivation and drive out of me and replace it with worry and hurry and lead me to seek to turn in something, anything as long as I can justify not spending any more time on it. For example, I may intentionally submit subpar work because I know that my class average and/or GPA is high enough to cushion the blow from a bad grade. That’s not the point of education!

    I have been considering attending one of Western Governors’ University (WGU) graduate programs, but I am dismayed at how WGU emphasizes, even obsesses over, going at a breathtaking pace. I’ve also heard, anecdotally, that they essentially employ professional naggers who call you every week to berate you for not making enough progress.

    I’m also quite dismayed at the lack of so-called “hackable” graduate degrees. There is a lot of material out there about how to “hack” a bachelor’s degree at schools such as Excelsior College through a combination of competency exams, portfolios, self-paced classes, and traditional classes that you can schedule as best fits your own life, schedule, and personality. Graduate programs want you to write, write, write until you drop dead from exhaustion. Breaks? They don’t think I need no stinking break! Don’t I want one of those awesome jobs that only master’s degree holders can get? Yes, but I want my life first!

    It would actually be awesome if there were real “decelerated” degrees. There is some precedent and room for “decelerating” by registering for fewer classes each semester, but there aren’t many (if any) opportunities to take a class over a whole year or even multiple years. A friend of mine underwent college humiliation repeatedly because the time that she needed to master the material was about 120% to 150% of the actual class length, and she had to repeat classwork. Ugh.

    I’ve tried graduate school, and even one eight-week class (which was the only option for the program), combined with a 40 hour workweek, was a living nightmare of late nights and high blood pressure. If there was a real decelerated degree, I would probably have already obtained it rather than becoming another “dropout”.

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