Portland State, Oregon’s largest public university, has announced that beginning next year, it plans to incentivize students to graduate in four years as a way to put a lid on student debt.

The problem is, this promise has some “caveats,” which makes one wonder if this is a serious proposal or PR spin.

For example:

n Students have to declare a major at the start of their freshman year;

n Students must pass a full load of 45 credits every year;

n Students need to earn at least a C average grade point average;

n Students must refrain from changing majors, adding minors and switching campuses.

My experience as a college professor, including four years at PSU (2005-2009) as an adjunct professor in the Hatfield School of Government, is that students change majors at least two or three times. That’s a fundamental part of the exploration process of going to college — finding out what your interests and skills are.

Few students come prepared from high school to know what their passions really are and where their skills are. This takes time. There is a fairly steep learning curve here. A student may think he or she wants to be pre-med, but find out in their intro biology or chemistry class that they don’t have what it takes. So they change majors.

The idea of completing 45 credits per year may appear a reasonable expectation, but what if one flunks or drops a class — a not uncommon experience in the first year? Unless you go to summer school, you are already behind the eight-ball, as you will be when changing majors or adding minors — which is very frequent these days.

But the most daunting challenge is learning how to navigate one’s choices of classes each term. Unlike at Pacific, my experience at PSU is that students are pretty much on their own. They don’t have assigned faculty advisors. That job defaults to departmental assistants. You’d better be a good self-manager!

Another reality at PSU is that as older students (i.e., 25 years old), many PSU students work full- or part-time and have families. So one has to be extremely disciplined and focused if one is to meet the four-year graduation goal. Again, minus a faculty/advisor support system, this promise is setting students up to fail or isn’t to be taken seriously.

PSU Provost Sona Andrews admitted the plan won’t work for many PSU students, because they need to work to pay for school or support families and can’t attend full-time.

The reality for PSU students, as it is for other college students, is that graduation takes five to six years. Just 17 percent of PSU full-time freshmen in 2006-07 graduated in four years, while 45 percent graduated after six years. Transfer students — 50 percent of PSU grads — won’t be included in this program.

In a perfect world, students would show up to college ready to learn; faculty would care as much about their students as their research; and the unexpected won’t happen to deflect one from the goal of graduating in four years! We all once believed in the Tooth Fairy, too, only to find out it was a Halloween “trick or treat.”

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus, Department of Politics and Government, at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

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