One new odd data point about US higher education

Today I was reading this article on the New York Times:

Four-Year Degree Guarantees are Growing for College Freshmen

The quick summary is that US colleges realized how expensive they are for many families. And what makes some families even scarier about sending their kids to college is what would happen with their finances if they end up taking more than the expected 4 years to graduate. So the solution is to provide “insurance”. If the student doesn’t graduate in 4 years, the school pays for the rest.

Coming from a school that was known for failing people, but graduating top engineers, the concept of a school optimizing for finishing a student’s education in a very specific amount of time for ALL students is very foreign. From my experience of people failing courses, both in undergrad (which was very common) and graduate school (which was very rare), in almost all occasions, I could say that the person failed for not being fully able to learn the subject. Very rarely I blamed the instructor (although some instructors helped on making the subject extra complex), as there are always other ways to learn that doesn’t require an instructor: you have book, and you have other collegues. I can say that I survived undergrad mostly by sitting together after class with classmates to go through homework and review the subject before exams.

I think the main question that needs to be answered is whether everybody can learn a subject. If that’s the goal of all your classes, won’t this force all subjects to be made simple enough so that the student with the least background and effort can understand? What about the people that need to be challenged? If the class auto-corrects for both sides of the spectrum, what grades actually mean in the end?

Also, and perhaps more importantly, what becomes the motivation of the student, if it’s the school that is more interested in forcing them to graduate than the student to leave? How do you still ensure that the students will learn if their motivation is not aligned anymore?

As the article mentions, it’s a little too early to conclude anything at this moment as for the long-term impact of such “recruiting” approach. Maybe in the end everything will just work, because it will force professors to spend more time with the students coaching them to do better. On the other hand, aren’t they approaching the problem the wrong way? Shouldn’t they be analyzing ways of reducing college tuitions so that people wouldn’t have to worry as much if their kids stay longer than 4 years? But I guess that’s not the American way of dealing with the problem… It is: add more lawyers and more risk, so that if things don’t work you crash and then try again some other time, not worrying about the impact of your failure to the economy.

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