AS THE COST OF A COLLEGE EDUCATION continues to grow by the year, many students are choosing to graduate a semester early. While the University has policies in place to aid low-income students, for some the cost of that final semester can make a significant financial difference. At Cornell, which saw a record number of January graduates this winter, the number of students choosing to graduate early has followed a general upward trend. Graduating early should be individual students’ decision to make, determinant on economic, educational and other factors. But early graduation can harm students, whose educational and social benefits are curtailed, and the University, which loses out on spring tuition dollars. Establishing financial incentives to aid students who cannot thus afford their final semester would benefit both Cornell and its students.
The percentage of undergraduates who are graduating in fewer than four years has increased over the past few decades. Only three percent of students in Cornell’s incoming Class of 1980 graduated early, compared to an 11 percent rate of early graduation among students in the Class of 2010. Tuition increases, which have consistently outpaced the rate of inflation, likely contribute to this trend. Although the University provides generous financial aid packages for low-income students, there are, of course, those who get left behind. For students who just miss qualifying for financial aid or whose packages do not suffice, the several thousands of dollars that can be saved by foregoing that eighth semester is significant.
In an editorial last February, The Sun argued that colleges should design their curricula with an eighth semester experience in mind — implementing educational incentives to encourage students to stay for their final semester. However, in light of the persistent trend of early graduation, and the number of students who are primarily motivated by financial pressures, perhaps academic incentives will not suffice. The University may need to offer financial support to help make that final semester feasible for some students. A targeted, need-based financial aid program, in which Cornell helps subsidize tuition for those who cannot afford an eigth semester, could help students in some way. Such a policy could also benefit the University, which administrators have said is financially strained by the tuition dollars lost as a result of early graduations.
A final semester at Cornell would allow students who are financially pressured to graduate early to take classes outside of their majors, meet new people and join new activities. Incentivizing a final semester for those students would also allow the University to regain some lost tuition. When students spend all four years at Cornell, both the University and the student body benefit.