Psychology and Art History Majors Need Not Apply

One of the most imaginative legislators in Virginia today is Chris Saxman, the Republican delegate from Staunton. Saxman has devoted more energy than almost anyone else in the General Assembly to devise creative ways to reduce state spending. His latest brainstorm: Encourage college students to graduate early rather than drag out their educations for five or six years at public expense.

The State Council on Higher Education projects enrollment demand for in-state students to increase by more than 56,000 students by 2012; Virginia’s four-year institutions are expected to absorb 11 percent of that increase. State support covers roughly 68 percent of tuition and general fees for in-state students. Incredibly, there is no requirement for students to complete their educational requirements on time. Indeed, Saxman notes, it takes students five years on average to graduate. “By offering incentives to students to complete their undergraduate degrees in less than four years,” he says, “we will help to free up space for incoming students.”

Saxman’s idea: Provide students with graduate school scholarships if they graduate in three years from public four-year colleges and universities. In return, scholarship recipients would obligated to remain and work in the Commonwealth for a minimum period or pay back the cost of graduate school tuition. He is particularly keen on encouraging doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers and other professionals in short supply to stay in the state.

Phyllis Palmiero, former director of SCHEV and a member of the Joint Subcommittee Higher Education Funding likes the idea. “Many students come to college with a number of college credits, some equivalent to a full year, however, they do not have the incentive to finish their degree early,” she says. “They prefer to remain with their class and ultimately enjoy their senior year. This is partly cultural and partly because there is no financial incentive to graduate early. Providing incentives or rewards for finishing early, such as graduate school scholarships, would certainly provide that incentive.”


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  1. I know most of my friends who didn’t graduate in 4 years (I did it in 3.5) did do it to “enjoy their senior year.” Most of them were either double majoring, working on a masters, spending semesters abroad, working internships for a semester.

    With college degrees becoming more and more common place, it is important for kids to distinguish themselves while in college. So there is a lot to get done in just four years.

  2. Terry M. Avatar

    Jim, you do of course realize that the assumption in this proposal is one of student choice? While some number of students may indeed choose to take 5 or 6 years to graduate, their are a few simple realities at work:

    1) Curricula are designed around a 4-year concept.

    2) Institutions, either through poor scheduling management or (as they would claim) lack of funding under the guidelines, do not offer all classes needed in the appropriate sequence for all students.

    3) Of the 67% of first-time, full-time freshmen starting in 1998 that graduated within six years, much more than half of those did in fact graduate in four years.

    4) Finally, according to SCHEV, of 25,000 or so baccalaureate graduates each year, fewer than 6% graduate with credits in excess of 135 hours.

    While the idea has merit, it seems to me a better investment would be to get more students to graduate first…then worry about how long it takes them, otherwise you are spending more time trying to solve problems at the margins.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Is paying kids not to go to school kind of like paying farmers not to plant corn?

    This has been a big push with the Warner administration, trying to get the colleges to accept more credits from each other, get folks out in one or two fewer semesters. But Chris may be onto something with graduate scholarships. You could achieve the same thing with a cash voucher, and the money the person saved undergrad would then be available for grad school (or to pocket.) One problem — there are programs that really cannot be completed quickly, many of them the professional degrees (engineering, hard sciences) we need. One less year of art history, though, makes sense.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Getting colleges to accept more credits is a major gripe for me. I have told both of my alma maters not to expect donations from me until I see some headway in this area. Not accepting credits is just academic elitism, that serves no useful purpose.

  5. SouthoftheJames.com Avatar
    SouthoftheJames.com

    I think that his plan in headed in the right direction. Maybe a good start would be to reduce the time needed for a BA (typically 36 credits in the major, 120 overall) to 3 years and free up course offerings to make BS degrees in sciences, engineering and health professions easier to obtain in 4 years (typically 45 credits in the major, 120 overall). Also, dumping some general education requirements or making them more flexible would help speed up graduation. Really, there is no reason why a liberal arts student can’t finish up in 3 years, esp. when you factor in dual enrollment, AP, the ability to take some courses at community colleges, and the addition of more online/distance learning classes (which are often cheaper to the institution. The 3-year plan totally makes up for shortening the program by 2 calendar year semesters. I finished my degree requirements in 3 years, but hung around due to a 4-year scholarship award and to pad my GPA for grad school. If I could’ve used that 4th year for an actual grad degree instead, it would’ve been great. This would also encourage the schools to start additional grad degrees to encourage advanced studies (And bring in more research $$) for those 3-year folks. For those who want to have the 4th year, the grad school incentive would work in fields like art history, English, psych and the like. That way, you’re actually better qualified to actually get a job in your field and not simply be the most literate waiter or barrista in the Fan…

    — Conaway

  6. Terry M. Avatar

    Conaway, may I point out that you, and others that post here, may not be representative of typical college students?

    Many students enter with little or no credit. 22% of Va HS grads entering college must take at least one remedial course. Of course, many of these students are those that don’t graduate at all or may take up to 10 years to complete a degree.

    As to changing the requirements for the degree itself, it is simply not possible right now to make a BA obtainable in significantly fewer than 120 credit hours – that is governed by national standards enforced by the regional accrediting bodies. A BA is defined as four-years of woek based on certain assumptions of seat- and study-time.

    However, it is indeed clearly possible to complete a four-year degree in three years by changing the calendar to put a much stronger emphasis on year-round enrollment, i.e. summer school. VA has an almost non-existent summer school enrollment in its public fours (with one or two notable exceptions). Part of the problem is student choice – they by and large choose not to study in the summer.

    Another problem is that part of the state’s assumptions on financial aid is based on a belief that students can work full-time during the summer to help pay for the tuition and fees.

    I honestly think that this is not a student problem…it is a problem with the higher ed industry. Tht Commonwealth funds ppublic institutions based on enrollments which, in my opinion, is silly. Why? At the four-year level, Virginia gets no value from enrollments, it only gets value from degrees earned and awarded. If you want to create profound change, fund institutions based on the numbers of degrees they produce — not on the number of input units they process.

    Yes, you would need to validate quality moreso than is done now.

    Right now, institutions gain by having students enroll…they do not gain by having them actually graduate. Change the funding mechanism, put in good accountability for student learning, and institutions will have a much greater incentive for producing graduates than they do now.

  7. GOPHokie Avatar

    I think Chris is on the right track with this.
    Here I see lots of people taking 5 or more years to finish a regular degree. I think we do need to address the problem of continued funding to the same people. This is going to get out of hand soon.
    Another problem is that with the rise of AP, dual enrollment, etc credits; colleges have made their base requirements higher to make sure people stay 4 years anyway. That put folks in rural areas at a disadvantage b/c now many of them must go 5 years b/c they couldn’t get those extra credits.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    If you want to speed up the process then yes, it will require students going to summer school.

    However, one thing I would like to add is the fact that there is no incentive for students to go to summer school.

    The credit hours cost more and that $$ may not be there for students receiving financial aid because of the way money is lent out by the Govn’t.

    In addition, summer school classes in college are a lot like summer school classes in high school – they are typically crash courses in a subject and are often taken by students that dropped a course during the fall or spring semester or they are retaking them because they failed entirely.

    One solution may be to place more emphasis on internships. I did one and got 6-hours credit for it and learned more there than I did in 3.5 years of college.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    A big part of the problem in how long it takes to graduate is the specialization of degrees.

    Basic English and basic history are often the only classes that transfer from one degree program to another.

    So unless you arrive your freshman year knowing EXACTLY what degree you’re going to receive, this plan won’t work.

    A 4 year degree in 3 years can be done – but only by the cream of the crop. Let’s assume you’ve got to work full-time in the summer to pay for college the rest of the year (many students do). And you’re degree requires a MINIMUM of 120 hours (standard bachelor’s). That means that every calendar year you are taking 40 credits. Assume best case is 1 summer class with working full time. That leaves 37 credits for fall and spring semester. That’s 6 classes per semester. That is one hell of a load to pull for 3 years running.

    Of course, this all assumes that your schedule of required courses works out perfectly with the schedule of when the university offers the courses. If you’re off by one course, you can lose all of that graduate school money. And this is a frequent problem in universities. In my degree program, for one of the course requirements I was given a choice of 1 of 6 offered history classes. Sounds like it should be a breeze to find one that would fit my schedule, right? Wrong. Each semester only one of the 6 courses was offered – and at only one session – so my entire semester had to be built around that one class – IF I could get in it before it filled up. I know several people who were delayed from graduating because there was one class that they were trying to get into. Threw off their whole schedule by a semester.

    Summer school – few classes are offered, even at large universities. The most you can take at a time is usually 3 classes unless you don’t mind get C’s and D’s. So, 2 summers of classes only cancels out one semester. And financial aid doesn’t cover summer semester – so you’ve not only got to have ready cash to pay for classes, but also to fund you for the entire year, since you won’t be able to work much over the summer to earn cash.

  10. Summer school is not necessarily required, nor is knowing your major when you enter. Two things are necessary—1. AP credit or other credit earned in high school, 2. focus on academics in college.

    I graduated from UVA in 3 years. I did 2 years in engineering, and then transferred into the College of Arts and Sciences, and completed my BA in two semesters. Yes, I had 30 hours of credit from high school, but I was also careful in selecting courses that would both fulfill “requirements” as well as work towards my major.

    Graduating in 3 years is doable. No, you cannot slide by taking 12 hours a semester, goofing off and taking “gut” courses that neither fulfill requirements nor work towards a major. You have to work hard, but Chris’s plan appears to be designed to encourage those students who do want to work hard and put in the extra effort. It is thinking outside the box, and I think this is a good plan that certainly is a step in the right direction for how the state needs to start thinking about higher ed.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Well Wahoo,

    Then I guess all of the people in college who didn’t graduate from high school in the last 2-4 years can go get screwed. I mean since you managed to graduate from high school with 30 credit hours – well then everybody else better be able to as well. 30 credit hours is another year of college. And what about all of those high schools that don’t have 30 hours worth of college credit to be taken in high school.

    And in my major the ONLY thing that transfer to anything else was freshman biology, basic english, and basic history. So if I transfer from my major, to say, English – that’s another 3 semesters of college minimum.

    College in 3 years is do-able for a few small percentage of our population – those who had access to and took 30 college credits in high school and those who have someone rich to pay for their expenses so they don’t have to work.

  12. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    11% of 56,000 students = 6160 students. Divided over a 4 year matriculation = 1540 more freshmen (or 1st Years at The University) spread across 14 (Is Richard Bland a 4 yr school?) x 4 year institutions = is 100 plus kids if it was absolutely even. So increase the VMI Corps by just 10 kids and spread the 90 among the other 13 = maybe 110 (round number up) more frosh a year. Where is the crisis?

  13. theShadow Avatar

    I know I took 5 years to graduate from VCU. Mostly because of two factors. 1) I had to work at the same time to pay for my education. Not everyone gets grants and scholarships. 2)courses are not always available every semester, so you make them fit.

  14. I also graduated in three years (from Washington and Lee, a private school so I wasn’t on the state dole, anyway) based on a ton of AP credit and a ton of credit from three college classes I took while in high school. It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

    First, that “free” year (I was on a full-ride scholarship) was a great opportunity to take classes just to learn. That may not have helped my career much, but it would have increased my value as a citizen. It would have been fun, too.

    More importantly, though, the decision to graduate early limited my choice of grad. schools. Many schools were scared away by my “skinny” portfolio. I only got one offer.

    I think it’s a mistake to try to coerce students into graduating early — or to coerce them to stay in Virginia. A government solution to the problem is just asking for more complication and waste. It would be better to try to open education up to the free market. Eliminating federal grants and loans would go a long way in that direction.

    One thing that would reduce graduation times would be to adopt a different semester schedule. The public university schedule of two fourteen week semesters followed by summer school is inefficient, because to graduate on time, students have to take heavy loads each semester.

    W&L had a three semester plan. The Fall and Winter semesters were twelve weeks each. The spring semester was six weeks long, but each class was longer. The net effect was that you could take more classes in a given year, but had fewer classes per semester. That made it easier to do well without sacrificing much in the way of time.

  15. Terry M. Avatar

    JAB, like just about everyone else, you are misusing the 56K number. First off, most all those students, 40k worth are community college students, half of which are in NoVA and Tidewater…that’s where any crisis will be.

    of the remaining 16k, 12K are in-state undergrads, the rest are graduate and professional. Further, part of the enrollment increase is due to increased retention – in other words, it is not all new students.

    And finally, as tends to be missed by the press,. the governor and others, there is no crisis at all at the public four-years as their enrollment targets demonstrate ample opportunity to meet the projected demand. In addition, the private colelges have enough capacity to handle any shortfall up to 7000 undergraduate students right now.

    There may well be a deepening of the problems at NVCC and TCC in terms of enrollment, especially in getting the desired classes. Then again, if the economy improves, then two-year enrollment demand will likely decline.

    OF course, all of this assumes that the recent trends in college participation rates remain the pattern for the future. We do know that many efforts are being made to increase these rates, so it is possible that demand may increase even more dramatically. There are other providers out there though…for-profit institutions like U of Pheonix, and lots of put-of-state public institutions providing degree programs at sites in Virginia.

    In other words, the only problems of enrollment demand are paying for it.

  16. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 9:12, You say, “College in 3 years is do-able for a small percentage of our population – those … who have someone rich to pay for their expenses so they don’t have to work.”

    You are quite right: Some people are better positioned financially to graduate in three years. Not everyone can do it. But does that mean we ditch Chris Saxman’s idea? No. Saxman is not saying everyone needs to graduate in three years. He just wants to incentivize people to graduate within three years if they can.

    The idea is to free up space in the public university system that otherwise someone would have to pay to expand. One of the beneficial aspects of Saxman’s idea is that it would reduce the pressure on colleges/universities to pay for that expansion by raising tuitions and making higher education even more unaffordable than it already is. That’s a good thing, right?

  17. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Hey, I just got an e-mail from someone named Iona Britt saying that I can get “a genuine college degree in two weeks.” No study required! Student records and transcripts verifiable!

  18. Terry M. Avatar

    Jim, you wrote: ” One of the beneficial aspects of Saxman’s idea is that it would reduce the pressure on colleges/universities to pay for that expansion by raising tuitions and making higher education even more unaffordable than it already is. “

    That’s true depending on the assumptions you make. I need to point out that somebody is still going to pay for something somewhere with tax dollars.

    AP courses are paid for with tax dollars. And yes, they do perform double duty and so there is a significant cost savings at the student-course level. Other than the 15-credit agreement worked out, there are significant limits on which institutions will accept which AP courses. And in both cases, institutional acceptance is governed by the score on the AP test – not completion of the course.

    Dual enrollment through a community college also provides an opportunity for a course to count twice, both for college and high school. However, the bulk of the cost is funded through general fund approps to VCCS based on enrollments. Further, transferability of these courses to a four-year institution is still governed by issues of articulation and transfer. While things are dramatically improving this year, there are still no guarantees.

    Increased throughput in the four-year institutions, i.e., summer school or greater course loads. Institutions are funded based on enrollment, not just tuition – increased FTE enrollment leads to increased general fund appropriations or even higher tuition increases.

    I think it is a fine idea to incentivize students. But, if you don’t incentivize insitutions they will have no reason to change their behavior to ensure that properly sequenced course availability will take place.

    As I said earlier, this proposal really only addresses students at the margin.

    If you really want things to be affordable and effective you need fundamental change in higher education every bit as much as you need it human settlement patterns and transportation.

    Fund institutions based on what you value most….degrees.

    Quit providing third party financial aid, make purchasers of higher education directly sensitive to the cost of attendance…that will force a market change.

    Another way to change things is to move away from a funding model that is based on how much it costs other institutions in other states to do things….what industries determin their costs of production by the average costs of their competitors and let it go at that?

  19. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Terry M: Ok, look at the Community Colleges. 20k in NoVa and Tidewater. Divide by 4 years of matriculation is a new freshman class increase of 5k. Divide by 12 campuses = 417 rounded up. 400 more kids on each campus = a crisis? How about a growth challenge, not a crisis.

    Appreciate what you say about the funding model. I didn’t know other states’ funding had anything to do with what the GA gives Higher Ed.

    Forgive me for being slow (after putting 3 kids through Va colleges – last one in the last year – I am brain damaged as well as budget challenged), but what is the 3rd party financial aid? Scholarships or what?

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    I would say that the for the most part, though not entirely, the very people who would benefit from “free” grad school – those who can get through college in 3 years – are the very people who can mostly afford to pay for grad school in the first place.

    By this I mean that most people who can get through college in 3 years don’t have to work to fund their own education/cost of living. Someone else is doing the funding. And that someone else probably had the ability to fund the 4th year of college, too.

    I don’t think we should dismiss Saxman’s idea outright, but there are a lot of “reality” holes in it.

  21. Terry M. Avatar

    JAB, first, at a coomunity college, it is 2 years, not 4. The “crisis” comes from the fact that even with construction in the pipeline, NVCC is nearly 40% over capacity. TCC suffers nearly the same isssue. More importantly, while students are noit denied enrollment, many are not able to get the courses they need or want, so they enroll in filler courses in order to stay registered and have an opportunity to get in those courses the following semester or year. Quite a few NVCC courses fill up by 5am when they become open for registration at midnight.

    Third-party payments are grants like Pell and TAG. A minority of people believe they are significantly responsible for rising tuitions as they make students relatively insensitive to tuition.

  22. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Thanks Terry M. Sounds like it is time to expand the facilities and faculty. Which I see as a normal growth challenge, not a crisis. Maybe I am missing something else.

    I subsitute teach occasionally for a friend teaching at Thomas Nelson CC. Taught as adjunct faculty at the College of William and Mary one term.

    I would think touching Pell grants would be a third rail for political hysteria.

  23. Terry M. Avatar

    JAB, the chancellor wants it to be a crisis. The other presidents want an enrollment crisis of some kind.

    There’s no crisis, other than one of funding….VCCS is at least $36M underfunded on current enrollment…another 40K students will just make that worse. Still, whether or not that is a crisis depends on whether or not you accept the premises in the funding model…which has never been fully funded.

    As to Pell…yes, it would be politically impossible to eliminate and other forms of need-based aid. The reality though is that these programs may be part of the funding problem as they disturb the market.

    But, if one doesn’t challenge practice occasionally, things never change.

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