Sheepskins and Ticking Clocks

Some traditions - such as getting in and out of an institution of higher learning within four years - may be best left behind.

But facing a 20 percent increase in college enrollment over the next 10 years, public colleges in several states are putting more pressure on students to graduate "in time." That can help make a school's graduation rate look better in nationwide rankings and open more dorm and enrollment space. And some of these schools can receive financial incentives from their states for moving students from freshman year to cap and gown in the allotted time, thus helping lower costs for the school.

Yet such pressure clashes with the need of a majority of students to earn money while they study, and it can run counter to a meaningful educational experience. Ever-increasing college tuition has forced more and more students to work, leaving them less time for "normal" course loads. And some students, unsure of a focus, may need a little extra time - and counseling - to explore academic options.

Those who used to be labeled as non-traditional students (over the age of 24) are now very traditional - in fact, current college populations are almost evenly split between those ranging in age from 18 to 21 and those over 24, many of whom have family responsibilities or established careers. In the latest figures available, students taking six years to get a degree rose to 30 percent in 1993 at all colleges, a trend that has presumably continued to rise. Graduation rates are slowest at public institutions. That has changed the academic culture, and schools need to make adjustments. Many experts say a six-year college time horizon is now reasonable for most students.

As they wrestle with tightening budgets, state legislatures can be more mindful not to adopt a one-size- fits-all approach to their public colleges and universities, which serve very diverse student populations and have varying graduation rates. Finishing efficiently is not necessarily the same as finishing "on time."

Yes, "perennial" students can be a problem on campuses. But there are options available to colleges to address that issue - such as identifying students who stay in school for longer than six years and requiring them to receive counseling, as well as to graduate within a fixed time. That approach seems wiser than pushing a cookie-cutter approach based on an outmoded model.

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