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  • Report: Four-Year College Degree ‘A Myth’

    The traditional American four-year bachelor’s degree is “a myth” and needs to be restored, argues a new report partially sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

    Complete College America, a non-profit founded in 2009 that seeks to raise the country college graduation rate, released “Four Year Myth”, in which it makes the case that the country is losing hundreds of billions of dollars in economic productivity due to an inefficient approach to completing post-secondary degrees.

    Even at top public colleges, the report says, only 36 percent of full-time students finish their degrees in four years. At non-flagship schools, that rate drops to a scant 15 percent. Out of 580 public four-year schools nationwide, only fifty of them graduate over fifty percent of students within four years.

    The problem is even worse for degrees other than four-year bachelor’s degrees. For two-year associate’s degrees, the on-time completion rate for full-time students is a miserable five percent.

    “Current on-time graduation rates suggest that the ‘four-year degree’ and the ‘two-year degree’ have become little more than modern myths for far too many of our students. The reality is that our system of higher education costs too much, takes too long, and graduates too few,” the report’s authors say.

    The laggardly graduation rates of American students has a series of wide-ranging effects, the group argues. In the long-term, it means young adults are spending less time in the workforce and more time in the classroom, decreasing their long-term earning power. More time in school is also exacerbating the burden of long-term college costs, because students are having to take out even more students loans in order to pay for additional terms of study. Every additional year spent pursuing a two-year degree costs a student an average of $51,000 after accounting for both attendance costs and lost wages, while every added year seeking a four-year degree costs students a whopping $68,000.

    One significant driver behind increased completion time, the study finds, is inefficiency in how students pursue degrees. At every level, students tend to earn significantly more credits than are required to graduate, but some credits are wasted because they are not required for their major. Altogether, excess credits cost students $19.2 billion every year nationwide, even before accounting for those students’ lost work productivity.

    Colleges receive significant blame as well, as several institutions are faulted for increasing the required credit load for a four-year degree above the traditional 120-credit requirement. They are also criticized for having policies that make it difficult for students to transfer credits between schools. Since a large proportion of students transfer at least once before graduating today, making credits easier to transfer would eliminate billions of dollars in wasted courses, the authors argue.

    To resolve the problem, the study recommends modifying the free-form nature of most modern colleges. Rather than allowing students to enter without a concrete plan and only declare a major later, the program suggests forcing all students to immediately choose a “meta-major” that starts students on the path to completing a broad range of potential majors. As students progress, they will narrow down their meta-major into a specific degree. For example, a student could begin with a social science meta-major, but then over time narrow it down to a degree in economics. Along the way, students will have a far more defined course of study; rather than “discovering” the path as they do now, students will be directed along a much narrower path that funnels them through essential classes at the pace they will need to graduate. Supporting this more on-rails approach to college would be more intrusive academic advising that would put students on administrative hold as soon as they showed signs of not staying on pace for graduation.

    Critics may point out that CCA’s plan would curtail some of the freedom inherent in the American college experience, but CCA embraces that reality, arguing that less freedom will lead to better outcomes. The report cites Dr. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore College who has found that when individuals are presented with an overwhelming number of choices, they tend to respond with suboptimal decisions or avoid making any decisions at all.

    “The last thing we want to do if our aim is to increase college completion rates is to offer students a set of possibilities that will paralyze them, weaken their self-discipline, and undermine the satisfaction they get from the work they have already done… Paradoxically, the more opportunities we give students to do exactly what they want, the less likely they are to do anything at all,” writes Schwartz in a brief contribution to the report.

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