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New publication outlines steps toward early graduation

STANFORD -- Current and prospective Stanford University students - and their parents - can now learn "by the book" how to graduate in fewer than the traditional four years.

Undergraduate advisers and admissions officers have begun to distribute copies of a new booklet, Early Graduation for Undergraduates at Stanford University, printed in October.

Institutional support for graduating in fewer than the traditional 12 quarters was recommended in 1994 by the Commission on Undergraduate Education. Implementation was coordinated by Geoffrey Cox, vice provost for institutional planning and financial affairs; along with Ramón Saldívar, vice provost for undergraduate education; Hector Cuevas, director of the Undergraduate Advising Center; James Montoya, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid; and Roger Printup, university registrar.

"This really is a great opportunity for many Stanford students," Cox said. "In fact, roughly 25 percent of our students currently either graduate in less than four years or use their four years to earn more than one degree.

"The flexibility of our curriculum allows for lots of possibilities besides the traditional
four-year degree," Cox said. "This is an important distinction for Stanford, and one that we hope prospective students and their families will consider."

Cuevas said he will continue to be the primary adviser for students who wish to explore early graduation options. Additional steps to support the program may be taken in the future.

Cuevas said parents of prospective students, in particular, "are likely to be very interested in considering the early graduation options."

He also noted that that the Commission on Undergraduate Education specifically stated, "We do not think that Stanford should push students to graduate early. What and how well students do here is far more important than how quickly they can get it done."

How-to guide

At Stanford, the booklet explains, early graduation does not necessarily mean the
much-ballyhooed "three-year-to-degree" program; it simply means earning a bachelor's degree in fewer than the traditional 12 quarters of classroom work. It is possible to earn a degree in about three years by earning enough advanced placement and/or transfer credits to graduate early; taking heavy courseloads in particular quarters, as many as 20 units; or incorporating summer study, at Stanford or elsewhere.

The first option is the most common, since advanced placement and/or transfer units are practically a necessity for early graduation, Cuevas said. The booklet explains the differences between such units, and how they are governed by different policies.

Maximum courseloads are not recommended for multiple quarters, because students with such heavy loads usually would have to give up extracurricular activities and/or jobs, Cuevas said. Summer study is a common and useful option, but not always helpful toward early graduation because Stanford does not offer many regular courses during the summer session, and it can sometimes be difficult to find course equivalents, especially in advanced courses, at other institutions, he said.

And, no matter how long students plan on studying at Stanford, they must satisfy the same requirements as other students: 180 or more units; the writing, foreign language and general education requirements; and the degree requirements of at least one department or program.

Pros, cons

The pamphlet covers the negative as well as the positive. While noting that early graduation has at least one tangible benefit - less money spent - it is certainly not for everyone, and each potential early graduate should weigh the pros and cons seriously before embarking on the accelerated journey to degree.

"One limitation most early-graduation students have encountered is the reduced number of elective courses they can take outside the major, particularly upper-level courses and seminars," the booklet reads. "Graduate programs at a number of universities - most notably in medicine and business, and increasingly in law - consider co-curricular or experiential factors to be important in the admissions process, in context with a student's courses, grades and standardized test scores. Students who graduate early may be submitting graduate school applications at the beginning of their third year at Stanford, with only two years of coursework and two summers of experience."

Cuevas noted that at the start of their third, or junior, years, a good number of Stanford students have not yet decided on a major.

In addition, students must consider the effects on overall quality of life, Cuevas said, given the additional stress they can anticipate from a three-year degree program. Others may miss out on such opportunities as overseas study and public service.

"It's certainly not going to be for everyone," Cuevas said. "Students who are interested should really do a careful self-evaluation before taking this route."

As the booklet advises, "You need not do it alone, though: Faculty, advisers, parents and fellow students may be able to offer help and information."

Case studies

The booklet has a number of "study plans," which are based on the academic histories of students who completed their degrees in fewer than four years in the past. The first example, someone who earned a bachelor's degree in public policy, shows that the student entered Stanford with 40 units of advanced placement credit, did not have to attend summer school, and attended an off-campus program, Stanford in Washington. This student ended up with 191 units after three years.

A second student, who earned a bachelor's degree in English, transferred in summer credit earned at a state university while attending Stanford during the regular academic year, and was able to complete an honors program and thesis.

There are also examples of four-year programs that resulted in two students earning
co-terminal degrees: one got a bachelor's in electrical engineering and a master's in engineering-economic systems in four years, the other a B.S. and M.S. in biological sciences, also in four years. One brought in 25 units of advanced placement credit and 12 units of transfer credit; the second brought in 30 units of advanced placement but no transfer credit.

"We are trying to show how it can be done, but not necessarily saying that it should be done, or has to be done a particular way," Cuevas said. "It naturally will differ from student to student, and the booklet is just a starting point. They really should sit down with an adviser and think it through very carefully."

Passing remark prompted debate

The genesis of the booklet, and the program in general, came in early 1993, when President Gerhard Casper met with the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle. During the discussion, he spoke of his plans to conduct a major examination of all aspects of undergraduate education at Stanford, including whether the standard four-year duration of that education was the proper length.

In an ensuing front-page story, which was picked up internationally by other media, the Chronicle portrayed Casper as one of the nation's leading advocates of a three-year degree. He later told the Faculty Senate, "My primary concern in this discussion has been the coherence and quality of undergraduate education. Its length has been a rather secondary concern." He also said that he was "delighted" to have started a lively debate on the subject of time-to-degree.

The Commission on Undergraduate Education the following year concluded its chapter on time-to-degree by stating, "We recommend that advisers be available to help plan shortened degree programs for anyone who is interested. We also recommend that the university prepare a special publication describing some typical paths toward a bachelor's degree, including three-year, double-degree and co-terminal programs that would be available to interested and qualified students. From the beginning of their time at Stanford, students should be aware of the options available to them, and of the costs and benefits of each."

Copies of the booklet are available from the Undergraduate Advising Center, which is located in Sweet Hall. The center's phone number is (415) 723-2426.



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