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MIT Should Consider Extending Drop Date

Tom Karlo

Column by Thomas R. Karlo
Contributing Editor

Those of you who intend to fill out one of those yellow forms and drop a class prior to Wednesday's deadline probably won't take much comfort in this, but MIT has one of the most liberal drop dates among the upper level colleges.

That's right. In this case, MIT gives it students more leeway and more flexibility than Columbia University (Nov. 14), Harvard University (Oct. 14), Yale University (Sept. 13), or Boston College (Sept. 9). Even Stanford University, with its late start to the term, cut off registration changes by Oct. 27. In an informal survey, the only college I could find with a later drop date was Brown University, with its Dec. 11 drop date, the last day before finals begin there.

Does this mean we should be setting our drop deadline earlier, to coincide with other high caliber schools? If following Harvard was a good idea, we'd also let in a third of our undergraduates because their parents came to MIT. Good for the endowment, probably, but not such a great thing for the quality of MIT students. Sometimes Harvard and the other Ivys get things wrong. In this case, the school with the right idea may be Brown, the lone standout.

What does drop date mean for undergraduates at MIT? Why do we have it? Every term some of us are forced to perform triage on our academic goals, about this time in the term. It is not an easy thing either. It means admitting a degree of defeat and trying to redetermine our limits.

There are some people at MIT with an unrealistic sense of their abilities. We all know someone who goes and takes six or seven classes every term and then ends up dropping a couple, as they intended to from the beginning. I would be the first to assert this is a selfish and inconsiderate practice; by taking classes while planning to drop a certain number, these students intentionally steal resources from other students taking those classes honestly intending to complete them.

Does having a drop date two-thirds into the term discourage this, or does it in fact encourage the practice? It forces honest students to make tough decisions about their classes partway through the term, while allowing greedy students to use the time of teaching assistants, etc., who could be helping the students truly interested in completing a particular class or really needing that class to continue their education. In this function, the MIT's drop date fails.

Going to a drop date early in the term would alleviate the problem of students taking classes casually but would too greatly penalize students for taking risks and exploring new subject areas. MIT is tremendously competitive, and students are already very focused on their major area of study. If dabbling in a class from another field of study meant that you had to complete the course after the fifth day of classes (like at Boston College), I doubt many students here would see the risk to their GPA as worthwhile.

MIT students are already dangerously narrow in their knowledge and usually have to take half or more of their classes from within their major each term. And with MIT's gigantic tuition, few students who have finished their degree requirements a term or so early are able to spend a last term exploring literature or taking classes in a different discipline. We're all poorer for this, and it is one of the reasons that MIT graduates are so often considered technicians rather than scholars.

So, as much as I resent the fact that it would encourage some of the less ethical students to play the system, I think Brown has the right idea. Encourage students to explore classes outside their majors, and to try to expand their limits by taking risks. College is the right place, and the right time for this. It is when you are supposed to be able to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.

The extra burden that an end of term drop date would place on MIT is insignificant compared to the benefits it would bring for the student population. Too often we see an emphasis placed on what's convenient for faculty and administration; this policy forgets who is paying to be here. MIT should give undergraduates the right to try hard up to the very end of classes and not penalize them for doing so. Both undergraduates and the university will be richer for it.