The Columns

Von Hassell: How Not to Graduate College in Three Years

— by on June 8th, 2015

by Christian von Hassell

I am someone who gets anxious in the classroom. So, last summer, just before I started my junior year at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, I decided that this year would be my last. After a very, very busy year, I have slowly come to realize how incredibly ill-suited I was to graduate in three years.

When told myself I was going to finish up in three years, I was plainly on track to finish in four. I had been taking a regular course load at W&L. I did not have a bunch of extra credits from summer school or AP courses. I had procrastinated on graduation requirements like a lab science and PE courses.

Now, it is late May, and I am finishing up my last week of college. Thankfully, I was arrogant enough to embark on this plan without first doing the math and stubborn enough to continue moving forward when I truly had no idea how it all would work out. I have benefited tremendously from supportive administrators and professors – and would have long since flopped without their help. However, in the beginning I knew that my plan would look like insanity, so I remained shrewdly mute on my intentions until I had already made substantial progress.

As I comprehend how poorly positioned I was to finish up in three years, I increasingly believe that it would be a challenging but very manageable goal for motivated students who plan correctly. I think many students do not fully comprehend that – with AP credits, summer courses, and just little bit of extra work during the school year – they could finish up in three years as well.

For many, a three-year degree is wholly desirable. It saves money and – more importantly – time. Even at schools like W&L that offer considerable financial aid, the opportunity cost of spending an extra year in college often materially outshines the fees themselves.

Moreover, W&L charges by the semester, rather than the credit. Students who take double the typical course load are responsible for the same tuition as everyone else. This makes graduating in three years much cheaper for the student – though ultimately unsustainable for the university. Schools that charge by the credit could more easily manage swaths of three-year degree students. Students would not receive the same financial windfall from accelerating their studies, yet they still would benefit tremendously from shaving off one year of forgone wages.

I do wonder what students lose by shaving off the fourth year. Through the Venture Club at W&L, I ended up spending a considerable amount of my time working with entrepreneurs – helping them write their first business plan, build their company’s first financial model, or just talk through a new idea. I bring this up because this sort of experiential, out-of-the-classroom learning probably would be hurt if students are rushing to pursue their degree. And, in many ways, that sort of learning can prove more essential to a complete education than more traditional courses. If students need to take 7 classes, they will have less time to devote to research, study-abroad, clubs, internships, and other extra-curricular projects.

I have been talking about squeezing a four-year degree into to three years. I am confident that most students could achieve this, especially if they planned on doing so from the very beginning. However, if we are just trying to get students through college in three years, universities also could reduce their requirements, maybe following curricula more similar to English universities. Such a shift would undoubtedly provoke chaos with accreditation boards, and probably could only successfully arise from a widespread national movement to speed up college.

In the meantime, colleges and universities have a tremendous opportunity for differentiation. Without abbreviating its curriculum, a school could propose a clear track toward fulfilling four years of requirements in just three. This could include more lenient acceptance of AP credit, increased availability of summer courses, and general institutional endorsement of a three-year track. Dartmouth – whose D-Plan divides the entire calendar year into four equal academic terms – would be particularly well equipped to launch such a plan. That would surely bring a welcome headline for their communications’ office.

Christian von Hassell, of the Class of 2016, is from Orange, Va.