Race to the Top

Zachary Watson/Guardian

Many of us here at the University of California tend to regard ourselves as pretty damn intelligent. We openly flaunt the difficulty of our course loads, complain loudly about any sub-par grade we happen to receive (read: ‘B+’) and brag with enthusiasm about the number of hours we’ve gone without sleeping during finals week.

But even the most self-involved of overachievers are downright impressed upon learning that a peer intends to graduate in three years. It’s a sign of superior organizational abilities, exceptional work ethic and, in many cases, a distinct lack of social skills.

No matter how many college alcohol parties one has to skip to get that diploma early, the hard work is paying off in a big way — in the form of a whole year of tuition. And while a select few students have been independently pursuing the three-year option for as long as there have been universities to graduate from, the fringe benefits that would come from instituting this ambitious pathway are just now registering on the university’s radar. A group of administrators tasked with solving the pressing UC financial problems recently recommended that the three-year squeeze be adopted as an official academic program — a move designed to free up space for incoming freshmen while launching college graduates into the workforce at a faster rate.

It sounds like a decent enough prospect: Take an existing option, institutionalize it, give it a fancy name (something like “UC in Three!”) and shuttle students through the system at breakneck speed.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. In order to ensure that students on this official three-year path graduate on time, they’d be offered priority course enrollment status, thereby placing regular four-year students at a disadvantage once WebReg season rolls around. And what if you sign for the three-year plan, lose steam and drop out? Then you got all that priority privilege without earning it.

What’s more, the program would likely also require participants to enroll in summer courses each year — a condition that basically eliminates the whole “save money by graduating early” thing. Sure, summer school is cheaper, but not by a lot.

The recommendations for the program also suggest that these summer courses be taught by non-tenured faculty and teaching assistants. Translation: lower-quality instruction for nearly the same price you’d be paying during the regular school year. Though it’s not unheard of for TAs to take on more than they should, institutionalizing cheap labor to such an extreme degree would come at a significant life cost to those enrolled in the classes.

As we mentioned, the program would have its benefits to the university: more room to enroll new students, lower instructional costs and the “streamlining” of a few general-education courses (sketch). Take note: the most significant benefits of this program are benefits to the university, not to students. Applicants admitted to the three-year fast track would be getting an inherently hastier education, meanwhile cheapening the UCSD degree for all of us.

And the university knows it. As if to confirm our greatest reservations about the plan, the UC Commission on the Future’s list of recommendations mentions a few of the negative impacts the program would have on its participants, including “less time to develop interpersonal skills” and “fewer options available within the curriculum due to scheduling restrictions.” Meaning they’ll be even less equipped with liberal-arts well-roundedness than they already are, and they won’t likely be able to change their major once they’ve shaken on the deal.

No doubt about it: Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the three-year plan would be a no-cost way for the UC to become more accessible to California students. Any way you look at it, though, the plan will translate to a lower-quality education. And once we’ve set that precedent, UC history will tell we’re unlikely to restore what was lost.

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