Three-year college programs aren’t more economical

Credit: Lisa Qian/ Credit: Lisa Qian/


This is how much a senior in high school who received or will receive an acceptance letter from Carnegie Mellon will be paying for one year of education. According to a 2015 Census, the median household income of an American family is $55,775; some students are paying 25 percent more than an average family earns in one year to be here. College is expensive, and it’s getting more expensive, rising by three percent every year.

In response to the increasing pressure of student loans and debts, New York University (NYU) formally proposed a solution to its students: graduating in three years. They suggested that by using Advanced Placement (AP) credit from high school, taking the maximum number of credits every semester, and enrolling in summer courses, students can pay one less year of tuition and relieve some of the financial burden. In order to promote this “accelerated” program, NYU will increase the number of three-credit courses offered and start accepting transfer credits from community colleges, which offer inexpensive summer courses.

Carnegie Mellon is similar to NYU in a lot of ways: they are both elite, private research universities located in cities, and among the most expensive colleges in the country. But instead of encouraging students to graduate early, Carnegie Mellon wants them to take their time. Most of the undergraduate academic programs are designed for four years of study, and the only accelerated programs encourage you to get a master’s degree within four or five years. In other words, Carnegie Mellon refuses to water down the weight carried by its degree.

Traditionally, Carnegie Mellon has one of the strictest policies on the conversion of AP credits, only accepting a score of five in the majority of the subjects instead of both fours and fives like many of its peer schools. In early February, the University Task Force held the Add/Drop/Withdraw Forum to announce their academic policy proposals, which includes a proposed change to the overloading policy. Instead of automatically removing the credit limit based on students’ QPAs, overloading requests will be examined and approved on a case-by-case basis. In order to enroll in more than 54 units per semester, students would have to not only achieve the QPA limit of their own programs, but also gain approval from their advisors. For the students who wish to finish early, overloading is unavoidable, especially if they are looking to spend their summers working, participating in internships, or gaining research experience.

These policies were proposed with good intentions in response to the overall stress culture at Carnegie Mellon. Given the competitive nature among students, having an official plan to graduate early may compel more students -— who are very likely to be overworked and stressed — to push themselves even harder. These concerns are real, and there is no point in denying the existence of stress culture, but there is another side to this story as well.

A fellow Carnegie Mellon student complained earlier in the year that he was bored in the required courses. When he was choosing his courses for the spring semester, he was discouraged from overloading with more challenging courses, despite clearly demonstrating his ability to learn and excel. This semester, he ended up being bored by his courses again. And he is not alone: Many other people also face the same dilemma; they have the willingness and ability to learn and achieve more, but they are held back from their goals because of these policies.

Blaming the stress culture on the few who are able to achieve more is absurd. Being a proudly diverse university, Carnegie Mellon should embrace not only differences in socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, races, but also the wide range of talented students it attracts. Instead of trying to normalize the difference, Carnegie Mellon should work to personalize the college experience for people with different abilities and goals. Providing a structured program for students with advanced knowledge, AP credits, and clear career goals early on would be less stressful for these students than leaving them to plan out their path on their own without guidance, sometimes secretly because they have been told to relax and not push themselves too hard.

But NYU’s plan to “cut costs” for college students does nothing to relieve the financial burden on students, and possibly worsens it. A college education is becoming a minimum requirement for many jobs, and attending elite universities such as NYU and Carnegie Mellon would supposedly boost your chance of getting well-paying jobs. But the reason that the “requirement” exists is because a college degree holds some weight, and the knowledge one learns and the experience theyaccumulate during undergraduate years are crucial to their career success. Offering “placeholder courses” that help students fulfill graduation requirements reduces the content required for an undergraduate degree and thereby reduces stress for the students who aim to finish in four years, but it also reduces the meaning of such a degree. Lowering the graduation requirement to make college more affordable would only result in employers and companies realizing that three-year degrees do not hold the same weight as four-year ones, and the students will be paying for their shortcuts in the future.

Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in Connecticut, began its formalized three-year bachelor’s degree program five years ago. The plan specifies that students who aim to graduate in three years not only have to overload during their academic semesters, but also enroll in approved summer courses every year in order to finish on time. These summer courses can be taken at other accredited universities, but they can also be taken at community colleges, which offer a more affordable tuition rate and often easier, less in-depth courses. Accepting credits from community colleges and summer programs could be a trade-off, because the quality of these programs and courses vary among institutions.

People who attend elite colleges like Wesleyan and NYU are more competitive in the job market, not because these schools are somehow inherently better than community colleges, but because they offer stronger programs and courses that challenge their students to learn more. You may be able to take an introductory level computer science course anywhere else in the nation and get the same credit, but that experience will not level with taking 15–112 at Carnegie Mellon. Carnegie Mellon is regarded more highly because of courses like 15–112: the fact that students have come out of the course with more expertise than their peers makes up the weight of the degree. Taking summer courses has another opportunity cost: in addition to not being able to take advantage of the academic resources within the university, students are also giving up their opportunities to take advantage of the university career services, which could help you find research and internships over the summer.

Why do we take four years to finish college? Michael S. Roth, the Wesleyan president thinks that there is nothing magical about the number four. “I think [finishing college in four years] is just a convention,” he said. He was right: the importance of “four” has been overly emphasized among colleges. But just like a lot of educators, experts, critiques, and politicians (such as Ohio Governor John Kasich) who think graduating early is a solution to the tuition problem, he was wrong, ultimately, because by conforming to this, the higher education industry in America will suffer, and will pay for “dumbing down” their curriculum and taking this shortcut at the end. The three-year graduation plan can potentially benefit the people who are already able to graduate early by pointing out a clear path, but for others, this plan simply adds to their stress and fear of missing out on such a “good deal.”