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NYU plans to make it easier for students to graduate in less than four years.

New York University

The idea of a three-year bachelor’s degree is nothing new.

But it generally hasn’t been promoted at pricey private universities, which tend to attract students with their entire campus experience instead of just the credits being earned. That changed in at least one case in February, when New York University unveiled a new program it calls NYU Accelerate. The program is designed to clear a way for some students to graduate in less than four years from a university that has long been criticized as one of the most expensive institutions in the country that does not meet students' full financial need.

Other institutions have introduced three-year-degree efforts in the past, notably including the private Wesleyan University in 2012 -- eight graduates out of about 730 completed their degrees in three years in 2016, up from two to three students per year in the years before that program was put in place. And enterprising, organized students have always been able to graduate in three years from most colleges, but few try to do so. Still, NYU’s move is noteworthy in that it reflects an escalating discussion around student costs, even at institutions that had previously seemed largely immune to blowback from increasing student expenses.

Now the larger question remains: Will the three-year-degree program have any significant impact on affordability at an institution quoting undergraduate cost of attendance at nearly $72,000 per year on paper? Reactions have varied, with administrators praising the accelerate program and other ideas put in place as innovative measures at an institution that is surprisingly constrained by its per-student endowment levels in a staggeringly high-priced New York City market. Meanwhile, experts said the affordability efforts do not amount to systematic changes, and some student critics bashed them as gimmicks. (The preceding paragraph has been updated to more accurately reflect NYU's estimated cost of attendance for domestic students who do not commute.)

The accelerate program leans heavily on changes to advising and chances for students to maximize the credits in their class schedules. All undergraduate schools at NYU now have acceleration advisers who are ready to discuss transfer and Advanced Placement credits and courses with students. An academic planning tool will alert students when their academic plans would have them graduating in more than four years. Currently, 81 percent of NYU students graduate in four years or less and 84 percent graduate in six years or less. The various schools are also attempting to increase the number of two-credit courses they offer.

Two-credit courses are important, because NYU’s full-time tuition covers 12-18 credits, but many students only take 16. Now the idea is that students can pair 18-credit semesters with some summer classes, January term classes and credits from Advanced Placement or community college classes to earn a bachelor’s degree in less than four years.

The idea comes as NYU is also pursuing other options to improve its affordability. Faculty members were asked to review textbook requirements, and 1,000 fewer textbooks were required for courses this spring than in the same semester a year before. Students have started an effort to share their unused dining hall meals, and university officials have lowered the number of meals incoming students are required to buy. The university is making online financial education tools available to students, and it has increased its shuttle service between Brooklyn and Manhattan, which it says saves students money they otherwise would have spent on the subway.

“There is no one silver bullet that can solve the affordability issue for our students,” President Andrew Hamilton said in an update on affordability issued last month. University leaders have also pointed out that tuition and fee increases were trimmed for the current academic year, rising by only 2.9 percent for most undergraduate programs. It was the lowest rate of increase in two decades -- tuition and fees have generally increased by 3.5 percent to 4 percent in recent years, including several years of historically low inflation rates.

The moves represent small slices of total student cost of attendance, especially when compared to the university’s quoted tuition and fees of more than $49,000 for most undergraduate schools this year. They’re still relatively small after factoring in financial aid packages. NYU did not share its discount rate for the current academic year, but its average net price for full-time beginning students was $35,106 for 2014-15, according to federal data on price including tuition and fees, books and supplies, and a weighted average for room and board.

Officials say they aren’t sure how many students will take advantage of the new accelerate program. But it should be noted that a large number of NYU students are already graduating early -- roughly 20 percent of undergraduates earn their degrees in less than four years.

So in some ways, the accelerate program is less a sea change than it is a formalization of what students were already doing.

“It seemed that we should at least make it clear to people that if they wanted to do it and they were majoring in a subject for which it was feasible to do it, we would lay out a path,” said Ellen Schall, a senior presidential fellow and professor of health policy and management at NYU who chairs the university’s Affordability Steering Committee, which is made up of deans, faculty members, students and an administrator. “It’s not advice. It’s not required. It’s not by any means to be imagined that this works for everybody.”

Schall listed several other affordability efforts underway at NYU, including a goal of saving $10 million on administrative efficiencies and finding additional savings in its procurement contracts. The moves can all add up to translate to real savings for the university and for students, she said.

She went on to argue that NYU’s per-student endowment is much lower than those of many of the university’s peers. NYU’s endowment totaled just under $3.5 billion as of June 30. That translates to about $70,000 per student. It’s also much less per student than elite private universities such as Princeton University, where per-student endowment levels are well over $2.5 million.

As a result, NYU does not have the financial resources to simply cut its quoted tuition by a large figure like 20 percent, Schall said. It decided to look for significant pain points for students and use that conversation to generate additional ideas for increasing affordability. The university is also in the middle of a campaign to raise $1 billion that will go exclusively to scholarships.

It is still noteworthy, however, that NYU’s endowment weighs in with the 27th highest total in the country, according to an annual survey from the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the nonprofit asset-management firm Commonfund.

At least some students are skeptical that accelerated graduation is a way to make NYU more affordable for the masses. The editorial board at the Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper, called the proposal about students graduating in less than four years a “gimmicky slap in the face.” The accelerate proposal takes a side effect of NYU’s affordability problem and attempts to label it as a solution, the board wrote. It continued by arguing that the idea ignores the fact that many students struggle to graduate in four years and that students have to pay additional tuition for summer and January term classes.

“These supposed solutions seem to suggest the working group believes that four years at NYU is a luxury for the richest students, even as most students in the U.S. require more than four years to finish,” the editorial said before going on to criticize the Affordability Steering Committee and working group that generated the idea. “The working group is implying that the full college experience is an exclusive luxury for students who can afford the tuition.”

But faculty members who are part of the affordability groups said the idea is not to rush students. It’s to provide them with an option.

“It depends on the student,” said Allen Mincer, a professor of physics who chairs NYU’s Faculty Senators Council for those with tenure or who are on the tenure track. The Senators Council has not had an official discussion about the latest affordability measures, but Mincer is also on the Affordability Steering Committee.

Mincer would not recommend that students who are not prepared for heavy course loads attempt to graduate in less than four years, he said.

“Are you rushing students?” he said. “I think you have to balance that against those students for whom this would be somehow enabling them to have a decent education here.”

Mincer is trying to reflect the emphasis on affordability in his own classroom. He teaches a science course on particle physics and astrophysics for nonscience majors. Its content doesn’t line up perfectly with any available textbooks, so in the past he ordered two books for the course. Now, with the talk about reconsidering textbook requirements, he decided to try some pedagogical innovations he’d been considering, such as prerecording lectures before class so that students can listen to them in lieu of textbooks.

Yet Mincer also cautioned that balance is necessary when it comes to affordability. NYU remains a tuition-dependent institution, with tuition and fees generating 55 percent of operating revenue.

“We have to be able to run the place,” Mincer said. “As a faculty member, I still want to see myself get paid. There are real costs you can’t avoid.”

Erica Silverman is an M.P.A. student at NYU who is also on the Affordability Steering Committee. The NYU Accelerate program can be helpful for students who want to enter the work force earlier or those who have trouble affording the cost of living in New York City, she said.

Silverman received her bachelor’s degree from NYU in 2014 but had been admitted to an accelerated master’s program in her senior year. She started taking graduate courses as an undergraduate in order to lessen the load on her graduate studies. Then she took a year off to work and save money before returning to graduate school. Silverman also watched friends graduate early.

Sitting on the Affordability Steering Committee has helped Silverman understand that broad changes at NYU are going to take time. She hopes the current initiatives are the beginning of a larger movement on behalf of the institution.

“You start to see how complex these big institutions are,” she said. “I think it could eventually lead to more and more positive movement.”

Experts noted that universities don’t have as much flexibility in controlling student costs as many expect them to. Large portions of their expenses are tied up in buildings or faculty compensation. Those costs can’t easily be cut -- and a university could risk its reputation if it did decide to suddenly slash them.

At the same time, institutions have come under increasing pressure on issues of student affordability. They have generally responded by increasing sticker prices and discounting tuition heavily for students who cannot otherwise afford to attend.

NYU has been criticized over the years for raising its sticker price, for not meeting the estimated financial need of every student it admits and for overall stinginess in giving financial aid -- NYU offers enough aid to meet full financial need for only 7 percent of undergraduates, according to data gathered by the College Board. It can argue it faces unique circumstances, such as the high prices in Manhattan or a per-student endowment that doesn’t keep up with the institutions in the Ivy League to which it likes to compare itself.

Beyond those arguments, it’s interesting to see NYU take part in an affordability conversation prominently including the idea of graduating in less than four years, said Ed Venit, a senior director at higher education research company EAB.

“What we see schools saying is they have a lot of different restrictions,” Venit said. “They can’t really control -- or at least it’s going to be an uphill battle to reduce -- the cost of college. But what they can do is reduce the cost for an individual student.”

Other institutions with low four-year graduation rates have been making efforts to push on-time or early graduation, Venit said. Think of public universities and the “15 to Finish” campaign emphasizing taking at least 15 credits in order to graduate in four years.

As a high-priced private institution, NYU fits a very different profile, however.

“They’re doing it for the same reason,” Venit said. “They’re using the same strategies as schools very dissimilar to them.”

NYU has a much higher four-year graduation rate than many other institutions. Its four-year graduation rate was 81 percent for undergraduate students who sought a bachelor’s degree and started in the fall of 2009, according to federal data. In contrast, the national four-year graduation rate has been roughly 40 percent in recent years.

It only makes sense to emphasize three- or three-and-a-half-year degrees at institutions that already have high four-year graduation rates, said Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. There are other reasons it would make sense for the university to look at accelerated degree options, such as the fact that many of its students graduate with high levels of debt -- including its low-income students.

“I suspect more students at NYU would be open to the three-year option than would be at, say, Princeton,” Baum said. “Princeton meets [financial] need.”

Over all, Baum has mixed feelings about the idea of students graduating in less than four years. It’s hard to criticize, because graduating in a timely manner can improve affordability for students, she said. But universities must be careful not to push students to take too many classes. And it’s not clear how much more popular NYU’s program will make graduating in less than four years.

NYU may be a different type of institution emphasizing graduating in less than four years, but the idea itself is not new, Baum reiterated.

“People have been talking about three-year degrees for such a long time,” she said. “Twenty years ago people were having this conversation.”

NYU officials argue that the university’s average debt upon graduation has been going down over the past five years, falling by about 25 percent to just over $30,000. The university has tripled its financial aid budget to more than $300 million per year over the decade from 2005 to 2015. It has also more than tripled the average grant given to incoming freshmen, from $8,900 to more than $30,000.

Further, NYU has a high number of Pell-eligible students, about 5,500. That’s more than Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia combined, they say, adding that the average institutional grant to Pell-eligible students was more than $39,000 last year. The average NYU grant to Pell-eligible students has jumped from covering 55 percent of tuition and fees to covering 82 percent in the last five years, according to university officials.

Of course, costs for tuition and fees and room and board have also been rising.

All the chatter about affordability has not hurt NYU’s application volume. The number of students applying for first-year admission in the class of 2021 rose 6 percent year over year to more than 67,000 students, the university announced in January.

It’s a complex picture, said Fred Carl, an associate arts professor who is the chairman of NYU's Contract Faculty Senators Council. Affordability and student debt have been much talked about on campus, and the affordability committee and Affordability Steering Committee and working group have been soliciting ideas widely.

“Saying, ‘Cut tuition and nothing else matters,’ I don’t know that I agree with that,” Carl said. “I think that you start where you can and you keep moving.”

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