‘Four-year degree’ a flexible deadline

Week 10: Pace

I cringe a little when I hear the term “four-year degree” bandied about. Sure, “bachelor’s” isn’t much better; it conjures up images of dirty dishes piled high in the sink, not a successful adult heading off into the world. “Bachelor’s” may have an incongruous meaning, but that, to my mind, is far better than the constricting meaning of “four-year.”

Because of my position as a teaching assistant, I see a wave of freshmen in my class each semester who are racing the clock. They HAVE to get into their major. They HAVE to take calculus to do that. They HAVE to get a good grade.

And they HAVE to do this as soon as possible.

For some students, that’s fine. They excelled at math in high school, they thrive under the pressure, they enjoy the challenge, or what have you.

But for the rest, it’s as though that four-year pseudo-deadline is hovering just over their heads at every moment, waiting to crush them — whether through the fear of failing to achieve their life’s goals or through the mounting student loans.

“Four-year degree” puts education in a box: You are to learn exactly this much in exactly this much time, just like everyone else, and failing to do so means you are falling behind. And that is simply not a realistic belief for any student to have.

In grade school, one can expect a certain amount of uniformity in each class. Students at a school tend to stay at that school. Students at a high school come from a small selection of grade schools. Because of this, schools can tailor their education very tightly: They know all students have been exposed to roughly the same information.

But at college, that’s gone. No longer are you likely to have lived halfway across town from your classmates; in college, you are not surprised to see a classmate who came from half-way across the globe. There’s no more uniformity to be had, certainly not in educational background.

And the moment students hit college, their paths diverge even more. Students who shared a majority of courses in high school may now not share any besides the most general of Gen. Ed. courses.

There’s no reason to expect that everyone will work through their degree at the same pace, and many don’t. I’m one of those crazies who did my degree in three years. (Because I HAD to get to graduate school. Because I HAD to challenge myself. Etc., etc.)

But there’s a large difference in getting a degree quickly versus slowly. My pace brands me as a nerd (a title I wear with distinction, thank you very much). But we have a large social stigma for the other side: Along with failing to get a degree or getting a degree in a “worthless” subject, we frown on taking too long to get a degree. There’s a mild stigma to being a fifth-year senior, greater still for sixth-year and beyond.

And I don’t like that. Four years is a good guideline, a reasonable expectation, not the de facto interpretation of college.

I try to pass that instruction on to my students who are worried: There’s no shame in brushing up on the fundamentals. I would much prefer a student delay my course for a semester and build up their skills and confidence, rather than continue to struggle through mine half-comprehending. I would much prefer a student correct things now than retake courses, hire tutors, or suffer chronic low grades down the road.

The system isn’t out to get anyone. We know that students change their majors, pick up minors, bob and weave their way through courses as they decide what to do with their lives. There is flexibility built right into the system. The deadlines, the minimum required course load, the recommendations of advisers — they exist not because every student MUST know their path from the beginning. They exist to keep students from stalling midway.

If you don’t know where you want to end up, pick a direction and make a step toward it each semester. If you change what you want, change the direction you step in.

That way, you’ll end up somewhere, even if it’s not where you set out to reach.

_Joseph is a graduate student._