January 31, 2011

Surge in Early Graduation Rates Forces Cornell to Make Adjustments

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For Dan Gusz ’10, foregoing his last semester in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations to graduate in December just made sense.“I have a job lined up at Deloitte Consulting,” Gusz said. “And it gives me time to work with a start-up retail company, Life Changing Apparel, study for the GMATs and travel.”Gusz is part of a growing number of Cornell students who no longer graduate in the traditional four year time-frame — a trend that professors said has financially burdened the University and forced some of its colleges to admit more transfer students. The proportion of Cornell students who graduate early has increased from three percent of students in the incoming class of 1980 to 10 percent of the incoming class in 2002, according to a recent report from the Office of Institutional Research and Planning. The most recent data are from the entering class of 2002 because the University tallies graduation rates six years after a class graduates.The upswing in early graduations has begun to put a financial burden on the colleges, which do not receive expected tuition dollars when students graduate early, according to Prof. Ron Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations and economics.To compensate for this lost revenue, Cornell’s contract colleges and the School of Hotel Administration recruit and admit more transfer students, Ehrenberg said.“There’s pressure on institutions now to keep students for all four years unless they have a good reason to graduate,” Ehrenberg said. He added that Cornell’s new budget model “will likely address the situation.”Along with deans in Cornell’s other contract colleges, Associate Dean of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Don Viands said tuition losses are “compensated primarily by recruiting and admitting more transfer students.”The deans of several colleges said they think financial strain and the increasing number of students entering Cornell with double-digit Advanced Placement credits have spurred the trend.“There is more reason to avoid the cost of an eighth semester when students arrive at Cornell with more A.P. credit and tuition has increased,” Harry Katz, the dean of ILR, said in an e-mail.The greater percentage of students graduating early “has the potential to seriously change the way we think about a bachelor’s degree,” said Kathryn Boor ’80, the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.Although each of the seven undergraduate colleges sets its own graduation requirements, early graduation rates have surged across all of the University’s colleges, according to Provost Kent Fuchs. The College of Arts and Sciences prohibits using A.P. credit to fulfill major requirements. The CALS Curriculum Committee mandated several years ago that students can use no more than 30 A.P. credits toward a degree. “We encourage students to gain the full Cornell experience by remaining here for eight semesters, but we don’t prevent them from graduating a semester early,” Viands said.The College of Engineering encourages students with advanced standing to enroll in the Master of Engineering program a semester early and complete the B.S. and M.Eng. degrees with just one additional semester, according to Lance Collins, dean of the College of Engineering.  Because family incomes have not kept up with rising tuition costs, Ehrenberg said many students are forced to submit plans for early graduation.In a survey conducted last year by The New York Times, two-thirds of freshmen said they had “some” or “major” concerns about paying for college. The Times reported that freshmen were more likely to have an unemployed parent than in previous years. They were also less likely to find a job, and more than half said they were using loans to pay their tuition.University administrators, however, warn against graduating early unless absolutely necessary.“The opportunity to spend concentrated time taking courses will not come again in most of our students’ lives, and we want them to make and get the most out of what we offer,” Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences G. Peter LePage said. “Hurrying through the wonders of our curriculum just doesn’t make sense.”LePage said that by offering many “attractive, interesting” courses, the college hopes to retain students for eight full semesters.Gusz, for one, is planning on staying in Ithaca to hang out with friends and audit a few “cool” classes.“This way I won’t suffer the social repercussions of graduating early and I’ll be here for Slope Day and Senior Week,” he said.The Office of Institutional Research and Planning will release its next report on students who enrolled at Cornell in the Fall of 2004 and 2005 at the end of this year, according to Marin Clarkberg, director of IRP.

Original Author: Dan Robbins