On Being "On Time"
In a recently published and enormously popular novel, The Rule of Four, the narrator describes how a university student perceives time.
Strange thing, time. It weighs most on those who have it least. Nothing is lighter than being young with the world on your shoulders; it gives you a feeling of possibility so seductive, you know there must be something more important you could be doing than studying for exams.
From the earliest days of the academy, recorded in exchanges between students and teachers in Plato’s dialogues, training of the mind has co-existed, uneasily, with the distracting exuberance of youth. Ingrained in our imagination, the carefree college student—young, hopeful, uncommitted—divides unevenly his or her energy between study and the more enticing allure of a world unknown, unfamiliar, untried. For a student, the light, imperceptible passing of collegiate time gives no warning of the rush and frenzy awaiting. Only those with little time— teachers, parents, professionals—can feel its weight. Today in Texas, however, the insouciant student may be an experience and a myth whose time has past.
Even as we universally acknowledge the need for all citizens to participate in higher education, even as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) presses forward its "Closing the Gaps" campaign to enroll an additional 500,000 students in colleges and universities by 2015, funding streams are stagnant and shrinking. At the same time, university study is more costly and stretches over more years than ever before. The traditional expectation of four years to complete a baccalaureate program is today, in public universities, a chimera. At UT-Austin, only 37.2% of undergraduates finish in four years; at A&M-College Station, 31.6%. At regional universities, serving non-traditional populations and large numbers of students who must care for their families and work as they study, graduation rates are substantially lower. At the University of Texas-El Paso, only 2.9% of students finish in four years; at UTSA, 7.5%; at UT-Pan American and A&M Kingsville, 6.6%. In Laredo, at Texas A&M International University, 16.6% graduate in four years.
Faced with a growing population, static funding, and a conviction that education is a right and not a privilege for all Texans who meet admissions standards, Senator Judith Zaffirini authored (together with Senator Geanie Morrison) SB 4, "B On-Time." The idea of rewarding prompt and effective completion of undergraduate study was fi rst proposed by Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. As a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Mr. Dewhurst suggested that student loans be forgiven for those who graduated in a timely fashion and with at least a B-average. Working with Mr. Dewhurst, Senators Zaffirini and Morrison crafted a bill to provide student loans to cover budgeted items including tuition, fees, transportation, books, and living expenses, reviewed and approved by the Texas Higher Coordinating Board. Most important, for students who maintain a B-average and finish their baccalaureate degree in four years, the loans will be forgiven. In short, this program, if fully funded, will assist all Texans with the largest portion of their college costs provided they get in, get focused, get moving, and get out.
As the dismally low four-year graduation rates above show, however, "B-On-Time" would today reach only a few Texans. Senator Zaffirini, in speaking with students, faculty, and administrators at our University, urges us that "the time has come to initiate a paradigm shift in how we think of higher education in Texas. Students need to take advantage of all entitlements and scholarships, borrow additional funds if needed, and finish in four years. We cannot continue to fund a four-year education over 10 years. Timely graduation is cost-effective not only for students and their families. It results in completing degree requirements at a lower cost to everyone and ensures that graduates enter the workforce earlier while creating university vacancies for new students." Her bill provides a substantial subsidy for those students able to move quickly through their degree plans and exit the University, to enter quickly the marketplace, freeing classroom space for a burgeoning student population. Can a non traditional population take advantage of B-On-Time? Can students who often must work while they attend class manage the challenge of finishing in four years?
Senator Zaffirini answers a most emphatic "yes." In fact, this group ultimate benefits most from state-sponsored support for a fleet and purposeful passage through the University. But much must change. Schools, colleges, and universities must together commit themselves to a new way of thinking and talking about higher education. High school counselors and teachers must encourage students to focus on probable majors even as they take advantage of dual enrollment opportunities and earn significant credit for university work before they begin post-secondary study. Colleges and universities must offer clear pathways in each discipline, helping students identify the most direct route to graduation. Most important, we must all help students understand the effort and sacrifice required to finish in four years will be more than offset by the economic and professional benefits of completing the bachelor’s degree.
A significant academic and intellectual benefit accrues, I think, to a four-year finish. The undergraduate years are, for most of us, the most concentrated period of growth and maturity we experience. The growth and the energy of undergraduate life springs, in part, from the compression and intensity of the experience lived in four years. Because one studies many diverse disciplines at once and in a short space of time, analogies and relationships between precepts, axioms, ideas, and theories are easy to perceive. It seems probable that memory of what one has studied becomes somewhat blurred for students whose course of study spans six years or more.
Higher education in Texas is, I think, ready for the paradigm shift implicit in Senator Zaffirini’s plan. Faster is better, at least for undergraduate studies. The expansive imagination, the ability to recollect in tranquility, the "small non space of time at the very heart of time," as Hannah Arendt would have it—those loftiest and most sublime gifts of an education—become, ironically, easier to reach and then to grasp when we pick up the speed.
Ray M. Keck III