I'll Take Five Bachelor's Degrees, Please

Baseball had Babe Ruth. Hockey has Wayne Gretzky. And the academic arena has Eric Coyle, who will graduate soon with five bachelor's degrees - an achievement kicking up controversy on his campus.

A six-year student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV), Mr. Coyle expects to collect BA diplomas in political science, criminal justice, sociology, psychology, and communications. "I had no idea I might be the first person to earn five collegiate degrees" at once, he says. Some have told him he is the first to do so, but Coyle isn't sure. The 1998 Guinness Book of World Records has no such category.

He is just happy, he says, that his plan to wow top law schools by earning multiple degrees worked. His 3.9 grade point average, high test scores, and five degrees got him into law schools at Georgetown, Cornell, Boston University, and five others. Harvard and Yale are yet to report.

The achievement has caused consternation as well as applause at UNLV. What upsets university officials most is not the number of degrees, but Coyle's unprecedented 11th-hour push to get the job done.

This semester Coyle expects to earn 64 credits - more than four times the normal course load (about 15 credits for five courses) for a full-time student. He is taking 14 university classes (43 credits), two community college English classes (6 credits), three internships (9 credits), and his senior thesis (6 credits).

Provost Douglas Ferraro has worried that Coyle's overload - approved by other officials - might reflect badly on the university. "We either have an incredibly remarkable student here, or there might be implications about the quality of our courses," he said last month. "The educational process is something more than the accumulation of credits."

Seeming to corroborate Mr. Ferraro's concerns, other academicians have voiced concerns about the signal sent by earning so many credits so fast. "It would certainly raise questions about the [academic] standards," Jack Warner, vice chancellor of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education in Boston was quoted saying in local media reports.

But Frederick Preston, a sociology professor who is one of Coyle's advisers, says that anyone who says the university's academic experience is easy "just doesn't know what's going on here."

He describes Coyle's feat as "quite stunning." He says Coyle is unique and chides other university officials for being so insecure about the academic standards that they would not laud Coyle.

Others are in awe of Coyle's achievement. To earn one bachelor's degree at UNLV requires 124 credits with 30 more for each additional degree. At semester's end Coyle will have earned 231 credits. This summer he will knock off the 13 remaining credits.

"In my years as registrar, I have never seen anybody anywhere carry that many credits," says Jeffry Halverson, UNLV's registrar. "It's quite an accomplishment."

Coyle says he did not set out to break records when he enrolled in 1992. His sights were set on just two degrees -and four minors. Only later did he decide to earn degrees in his minors by taking five more classes in each.

He was not always a top student. His grade point average now is 3.9. But in his first four years he managed just 2.56 by the fall of 1996. That was when he realized, he said, that he could not get into a top law school unless he did something dramatic. That is when he decided to get five bachelor's degrees.

So he put himself on the fast track. And he credits the pressure of his hectic schedule with forcing him to focus more and manage his time better. He gets just 3.5 hours of sleep a day, rising at 6 a.m. to study before morning classes. He snags most meals at drive-through restaurants on his way to classes.

"I wasn't forced to organize myself or budget my time efficiently," he says. "As a result, I didn't study hard enough, didn't take school seriously enough. Grades were never important to me. But I realize now they're important to other people."

Whether a fluke or a great achievement, Coyle will probably be the first - and last - student at UNLV to graduate with five degrees. The university's faculty senate recently considered new rules to restrict course overloading by students. But the motion failed. "It's unfortunate that the university is so insecure," Coyle says. He argues, "If I had done this at Berkeley or Stanford they would be celebrating."

* Send comments to claytonm@csps.com

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