Shah: Caveat Emptor

Not all roads lead to a four-year degree. ​

by Rachna Shah | 10/19/17 12:15am

As a high school senior, the colleges I visited prided themselves on their undergraduate experiences. Admissions tour guides emphasized the depth and breadth of the opportunities available — study abroads, spring break internships, corporate recruiting partnerships and more. College was depicted as an all-you-can-eat buffet, where the idea that there was a single route to a degree was preposterous. At the same time, these same admissions tour guides spoke glowingly of their colleges’ four-year graduation rates. Dartmouth was no exception. But spending a greater number of years in higher education should not be so universally considered as indicative of failure. The benefits of a longer undergraduate education, which allows students to undergo a broader and deeper range of academic and non-academic experiences, outweigh the costs, financial and otherwise.

When we were younger, learning was synonymous with uncertainty and curiosity; in college, it is associated with future success. The moment we get our college acceptances, people start questioning us about our intended majors to give us advice on our careers. While the majority of college students change their major at least once, there is generally a point where changing your major is no longer an option.

Unfortunately, introductory classes in a major can be misleading. As one advances through upper-level courses, the seminars and classes may either become terribly fascinating or terribly mind numbing. When the latter proves true, our current four-year system advises us to just struggle through the rest of the major classes. But we should not be advised to settle — we should explore possible opportunities and be reminded that multiple options always exist. If you dread going to your major classes and are gravitating toward another field, make the transition. The classes that you have previously taken may be able to work toward a minor, and even if they do not, 10-week terms where you considered new perspectives and built personal connections were never a waste of time.

A longer undergraduate education would therefore encourage academic exploration. The ability to take both introductory and upper-level classes in other majors becomes feasible, expanding students’ minds outside of the tunnel vision focus of their major. The ability to take a larger number of classes also makes stretching outside of one’s academic comfort zone less risky, exposing students to new fields of inquiry, knowledge and ways of thinking.

Of course, the reality is that a broader range of courses means very little without real-world applications. But the diversity of relevant work gained while identifying one’s passion builds skills that are applicable in the workplace. Internships allow us to test and refine the knowledge we learn in the classroom, improving our confidence and knowledge, but there are other models that can help us extend our education while balancing our finances.

One option already in place at other institutions is a co-op: offering academic credit for structured job experiences. In most models, a semester of school is alternated with a semester of work, elongating one’s undergraduate education in quality and quantity. Co-op earnings are not counted against students’ eligibility for federal need-based aid, and these programs can pay students as much as $46,000 per year, thus allowing students to pay for college with both financial aid offers and co-op earnings. At schools such as Northeastern University that operate with the co-op model, many students stay in school for five years instead of four, which gives them more time to figure out — through both work and school — what they truly enjoy studying. The co-op model is therefore a practical extension of school that is renowned for its success in helping students develop both flexibility and knowledge.

Having free terms would also allow more students to fit international programs into their college experience by looking for jobs outside of the U.S. As the political divides in our nation widen, collaborative and cross-cultural skills are essential and can be apprehended through off-campus opportunities. Engaging with different people and perspectives is a skill set that requires time to develop, and having added time in college through co-ops can allow students to go on more study abroad programs — or even their first one. Unfortunately, an accelerated college education can detract from the time needed to build and sustain these relationships. If most people agree that the two main purposes of college are personal and educational growth as well as preparation for a future career, a longer undergraduate education can help foster both through additional study abroad opportunities.

An essential consideration in a longer undergraduate education is the elevated financial cost. However, study abroad programs with lower tuitions can save students money, an arrangement Dartmouth can adopt. And many employers, such as those in co-op programs, are beginning to offer tuition reimbursements to their employees.

A longer undergraduate education should not encourage procrastination but instead embolden curiosity and flexibility. Adopting an optional co-op system would allow students to gain those skills. Students should use their extra terms or years wisely, learning from mistakes in the past to take advantage of what their undergraduate experiences can be. Whether you graduate in three years or in over six years, you will be a Dartmouth alumnus.