March 10, 2009

Recession May Prompt Early Graduations

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Graduating a semester or even a year early, while not the norm, is becoming an attractive option for many undergrads across the country and at Cornell as well.
The cost of attending a university has dramatically increased nationwide in recent years. Many parents and students alike are feeling the impact of increasing tuition and room and board costs. For the 2009-2010 academic year, Cornell’s undergraduate tuition in endowed colleges will increase by four percent, which is less than the increase in previous years. But tuition will also rise by 7.2 percent in statutory colleges.
Most American students now take longer than four years to complete their degrees, but several universities across the country are experimenting with a three-year degree program option, according to a recent article in the New York Times.
Michael Matier, the director of institutional research and planning in the University’s division of planning and budget, explained that in accordance with federal guidelines for reporting graduation rate, Cornell focuses on six-year graduation rates. However, the proportion of freshmen who graduate in less than four years has been growing.
“Whether or not this can be attributed to wanting to reduce their total cost of financing their bachelor’s education is a question we can’t answer definitively from the data available to us, though it would seem a plausible hypothesis,” Matier stated in an e-mail. “Another plausible hypothesis would be that growing numbers of students are arriving on campus with greater proportions of A.P. and other sorts of college credit.”
The percentage of students who graduate early and complete their degree requirements prior to the spring semester of their fourth year at Cornell has steadily increased. Cornell’s early graduation rate currently hovers at around 11 percent, according to the Division of Planning and Budget’s Factbook.
For some current students, finances played a crucial role in their decision to graduate early. Justine Fields ’09, a junior who plans on graduating a semester early in Dec. 2009, explained how finances were a somewhat significant factor in her decision to graduate early.
“In light of the current economy, I think it’s important to really question your education spending. Are the dollars you’re spending going to an education you want? Paying for classes, buying the books, etc.? If not, why would you bother spending that money?” Fields asked.
Fields is not on financial aid and does not have to take any loans. She explains how the current state of the economy has affected her spending in other ways.
“I definitely try my best to spend less on the non-necessities. Living in Ithaca, I definitely found it easy to visit my favorite distant retailers online. But in the last few months I have definitely cut back on my online shopping,” Fields said. “It has also definitely taught me to think twice about spending on anything. Unless I really need it, should I really buy it?”
Vinay Patel ’09, a junior in CALS who plans on graduating in Dec. 2009, explained that he planned to graduate early last year “when things were a little better economically.”
“… I’m sure underclassmen would be more motivated to get out of here … at least a semester early, based on the way things are in the economy right now,” Patel said.
“Graduating early isn’t something you can just decide to do now. It usually requires planning,” said Alanna Newman ’09. She is graduating this Spring after spending three years at Cornell. Like Patel, money was not the driving force behind her decision to graduate early, but she believes it will be more common in the coming years.
“I don’t think it has impacted Cornell yet. It’s too soon,” she said.
The current financial recession has trickled down to affect the budget of the University as well. Though it may not be apparent yet, some students think that future tuition increases to make up for the budget deficit may impact enrollment and graduation.
“It’s essentially too soon to tell what effects the current financial situation will have on graduation rates. By the same token, it will be six years or so until we can fully discern the impact of the recent changes in financial aid policy,” said Matier.
But even before the financial downturn, some students were already set to leave Cornell early.
“I had decided to graduate early before the recent economic situation. I could theoretically complete the credits I had left in a year, and if I could graduate in three years, there was no reason to stay here for a whole extra year,” Newman said.
Similar to Newman’s reasoning, Patel realized he could complete the required work for his Biology major and decided that it was the best alternative for him.
“If you can save money without causing yourself all too much burden, then you might as well,” Patel said.
In many undergraduate majors at Cornell, graduating early is almost impossible due to rigorous, fixed classes that are only offered in certain semesters at specific times.
Danielle Brody ’11, a Chemical Engineering major said she would graduate early to save money if it were feasible.
“I would love to be able to graduate early and save a semester’s tuition, but with the classes I’m taking, it really isn’t possible,” she said.