Dismantling the degree factory

The U’s four-year graduation timetable doesn’t prepare students for the future.

Chance Wellnitz

Based on the thousands of caps and gowns at last spring’s graduation ceremonies, you’d hardly guess that as recently as the ‘90s the University of Minnesota had a four-year graduation rate of only 15 percent — the lowest rate of Big Ten schools.

In recent decades, the University has become more selective in its admissions process and has implemented policies which push students to take full 15-credit course loads in order to graduate in four years. As a result, that 15 percent graduation rate rose to nearly 60 percent in 2013 , and vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, Robert McMaster, got to gloat to the Star Tribune that the U’s rate was ahead of the University of Wisconsin’s.

On the surface, this seems like an unequivocal success. After all, a four-year degree is no longer seen as an option for only the privileged few, but rather an expectation — an expensive but necessary step to get your foot in the professional door.

However, tightening up admissions only serves to disadvantage certain prospective, enterprising students who may be unable to graduate in a timely fashion due to extraneous circumstances. By prioritizing the formulaic, four-year graduation timetable, the University is implicitly valuing getting students in and out of the University, rather than preparing them for future careers.

One could certainly make the argument that a favorable, higher graduation rate is intimately tied to a school’s level of funding, which in turn increases the amount of money a school can allocate toward its students. But, it may not be that simple.

Students undoubtedly want to get their degrees as efficiently as possible. The problem is that efficiency can’t always be guaranteed, just as a degree doesn’t automatically land you that job at Twitter’s corporate headquarters.

The University’s four-year graduation guarantee is a good start for its students, but it doesn’t account for the systemic quandary at the University and many other degree factories. If a college’s mission is to train and prepare the future workforce, then ignoring those who fall off the assembly line and may not be able to graduation on time is a disservice to students. These individuals often have as much potential as those who graduate in four years, but they can’t boost the school’s image.

Degree factories are a direct reflection of today’s cultural climate, and to make a change, we must engage with the culture that created them. There is nothing wrong with striving to finish an undergraduate degree in four years or less, but holding that as an expectation can do more damage than good — especially when many unexpected life events can get in the way.

Complaints that colleges no longer exist to stimulate intellectual curiosity seem naïve;, college campus the University certainly remains a productive hub of discourse. It is a luxury to take something that costs thousands of dollars every year, and be primarily concerned with its figurative cost on us. But Pperhaps if we focus our attention on those students that degree factories seem to continually ignore, someday we may find that their success, too, is beneficial to us.