It was your last year of high school.
You were at a graduation party, or maybe talking to some relatives; perhaps it was a professor or your best friend's dad who first said the one thing that every college-bound student hears before they leap.
"College will be the best four years of your life."
At some point, someone you know shared that little nugget of inspiration with you. But the American expectation is as much reminder as it is encouragement; you're going to have a blast, but it's only supposed to last four years.
At least, that's what American higher education mandates. Look at our own university, where Chancellor Jimmy Cheek instituted his "15-in-4" tuition model in 2013. Every full-time student pays for at least 15 credit hours, even if he or she is only taking 12 hours. The logic is simple and direct; if students pay for 15 hours, they will more than likely want to take 15 hours. And if all students take 15 hours each semester, they will only need eight semesters to graduate.
"We have embarked on an all-out effort to make on-time graduation the new norm for our students," the Chancellor's Office explains on its website.
And it's not just our Chancellor pushing for seniors to pack up their diplomas and move out. All across the country, universities are incentivizing their students to graduate "on-time." Purdue University is trying to raise its four-year rate to 50 percent by this May; the University of Texas is pumping $5 million into financial aid programs for students to promote four year graduation.
Here at UT, our ascent to the vaunted "Top 25 Public Research Universities," has been slowed by our low four-year graduation rate – only 36 percent in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. Hence, "15-in-4."
Considering our struggles in that area, I couldn't help but initially agree with the Chancellor's initiative. But then I looked around at all the aquatic centers and dining halls, high-tech educational settings and beautiful women. I thought about how awesome it is to go wild for the Orange and White in Neyland Stadium – with 100,000 other people.
When I also considered all the brilliant visiting speakers I got to see and incredible organizations I got to join, I realized there was something I didn't understand.
If this university is going to spend millions of dollars enticing me to attend and have "the best time of my life," then why would I want to graduate in four years?
The common reasoning sounds like this: Students who take more than four years spend more than they should on tuition. Not only does an extra year at UT cost $20,000 per year; any student of opportunity cost knows that another year of pennies spent is also a lost year of pennies earned. And the universities certainly don't benefit from students taking up seats in classrooms that would be better used by each year's increasingly-qualified freshman class.
He who takes a victory lap is one more alumnus not giving back – one less mark against us on the rubric for the top 25. Even our state pushes UT to graduate students in four years in its formula for higher education spending.
But the common reasoning neglects the pressure on students to take time to study abroad in a globalizing economy and work an internship in their intended field. And though it may be cheaper to graduate on time, fail to find a job, and move back in with your parents, it's also a hell of a lot more humiliating. And increasingly common.
Our country conflates the idea of college as rite of passage – "the best four years of your life" – with college as economic propeller. Now we find ourselves with universities that fund lazy rivers even as they shout at students to get out of the inner-tube.
Of course, the American higher education has a simple solution. Know exactly what you want to do at 18 and arrive with a few college credits; take and pass 15 hours every semester, even though your first two to three semesters will be spent taking general education courses that have little to do with your career; travel Europe the summer after your sophomore year; work an internship the summer after your junior year.
And all you students who have to work through college to pay for the ever-higher tuition? All you dreamers who dare to change majors? You Napoleons, who study more broadly than one country; you over-achievers who double and triple-major?
You're slowing down the system. It promised you the best years of your life – but only four of them.
How dare you try for more?
R.J. Vogt is a junior in College Scholars. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.