January 29, 2013

WEINBERG: 4 Years at Cornell, 3.5 Years of Productivity

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The second semester of senior year is a milestone for any undergraduate on the Hill. After three and a half long and difficult years, one is rewarded with the opportunity to take fewer credits and spend more hours at the (few) bars than at the (many) libraries. But is the four month sojourn at Camp Cornell worth the ever-increasing cost of tuition? And would it be better if seniors spent more of our time serving the Cornell community and contributing knowledge? It’s time for Cornell to evaluate the utility and structure of senior year, just as law schools are facing pressure to justify and transform their students’ third year of study.

The third and final year of a legal education has been oft-maligned for its irrelevance. According to Peter Lattman of The New York Times, “There is an old saying that in the first year of law school they scare you to death; in the second year, they work you to death; and in the third year, they bore you to death.” With jobs secured and requirements met, law students are left with a considerable choice of courses, but they lack direction and are still bound to pay tuition. Sound familiar?

Given the heavy debt many law students face and the high cost of a legal education, law schools are increasingly being asked by members of the legal community to defend the necessity of a third year of study. Furthermore, there is a proposal in New York to allow law students to sit for the bar exam and enter the legal profession after two years of law school. Evidently, the idea that law schools can coerce law students to pay for unnecessary schooling is on the hot seat.

Despite the hoopla surrounding law schools, there has not been considerable thought given to the consequence of mandating eight residential semesters for undergraduate study. Such consideration is particularly necessary in light of the many Cornell students who enter with Advanced Placement credit or choose to accelerate their studies, thus achieving all graduation requirements in three or three and a half semesters.

Attitudes toward completing a course of study in fewer than four years vary widely across Cornell’s colleges. CALS facilitates graduating early, and the website of its Registrar notes “students utilizing AP or transfer credits to define themselves in the Registrar’s records as students with advanced standing…will be expected to graduate in fewer semesters based on the advanced standing.” On the other hand, the website of ILR Student Services cautions that “undergraduates must complete eight semesters of full-time study …  Advanced Placement credit may not be used to accelerate graduation.” The College of Arts and Sciences has a set program for acceleration, albeit with many requirements.

Clearly, Cornell lacks an institutionally coherent definition of the completion of undergraduate studies. Those who subscribe to the idea that credit hours are alone sufficient are attracted to December graduation, but this presents a problem for the University: Tuition is the primary source of revenue, and the loss of those students’ tuition payments represents a budgetary challenge. Additionally, there is credence to the argument that much learning is done outside of the classroom and that four-year participation in the Cornell community is essential to your education. It’s important that Cornell students not only spend four years on campus, but also that they spend all four of those years are productively.

Then what is to be made of second-semester seniors who have met close to all of their graduation requirements? I was fortunate to attend a prestigious public high school and thus enter Cornell with a significant amount of AP coursework. When I met with ILR Student Services last semester, I was told I could not graduate a semester early despite meeting all credit and graduation requirements. So I patched together a 13-credit semester of elective coursework. Based on my conversations with other seniors, I know I’m not alone in questioning the worth of such a semester. We want to be here and continue our involvement in clubs, activities and teams, but we see our tuition payments and course enrollment as rather ludicrous. The status quo is especially untenable for those who struggle to pay tuition each semester.

ILR seems to have caught on to their problem of mandating eight semesters of study for students in my situation, as the school has reduced the number of accepted AP credits from 30 to 12. Such an approach is in line with Dartmouth College’s recent decision to cease awarding any credit for AP coursework.

Intimating that AP courses are not akin to college introductory courses, however, would not be in line with research findings. Studies by experts in 2007 and 2009 independently found that students were adequately prepared by AP coursework for higher-level courses. From my own anecdotal evidence, I have to agree. I chose to retake Introductory Microeconomics and Macroeconomics despite having achieved the requisite AP scores on each exam for credit, and found retaking the courses at Cornell to be intellectually superfluous and unfulfilling.

Instead of bullying students into staying at Cornell for the sake of staying, the undergraduate colleges should each develop unique programs for seniors that allow everything we have learned and experienced here to coalesce. Princeton University, for example, requires all seniors to write a thesis and contribute new knowledge to their respective disciplines in place of taking several courses. Moreover, the creation of more unique senior-oriented courses, such as AMST 2001: The First American University, could benefit our experience. And awarding more credit for service, community-building initiatives and fieldwork could reward students for putting learning into practice.

NYU Law School, responding to aforementioned criticism, recently overhauled the third year of studies for students with a new emphasis on concentrations and foreign study. Cornell should similarly take the lead and reinvigorate the senior year undergraduate experience. After all, Cornell is the First American University because it uniquely conceived the modern American coeducational, nonsectarian model of higher education predicated on diversity of studies and experiences (#AMST2001). In that spirit, it’s imperative for Cornell to facilitate a senior year replete with enthusiasm for and contributions to our University and not just its ever-fading bar scene.

Jon Weinberg is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at [email protected]. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg