Don't Coterm

Don't Coterm

As my third year at Stanford comes to a close, many of my friends are considering the eternal Stanford question: to coterm or not to coterm. Coterming would mean stapling a year-long master's degree program to your regular B.A. or B.S., usually taking the form of a fifth year. (For overachievers, a coterm can be completed in the fourth year.) The program’s popularity is why Stanford measures its six-year—not the standard four-year—graduation rate. 

While still a master's program, the coterm is more of an "undergrad plus" than a traditional master’s program in its own right. Though some coterms live in grad housing—cooking their own meals, fraternizing with grad students—many live in undergrad housing with their undergrad friends, living identically to how they did as undergrads (or, if they do live in grad housing, with their friends from undergrad and shuttling between undergrad dorms and their own).

I can’t say that a coterm (perhaps in Modern Thought and Literature! Slavic Languages and Literatures! Philosophy!) doesn’t sound appealing. I love Stanford—my friends, my coursework, the cold brew at Coupa Cafe on a sunny day, the Review. But I also have an intuition as a twenty-one-year-old who is all too aware of my aging that we should not artificially extend our youth. 

For most, choosing to coterm is to indulge in Peter Pan syndrome, shunning the ‘real world’ in favor of the comforts of Palm Drive, biking to class, and the quarter system—youth extended for one more year. Traditionally, students would go off to college for four years and, by the end, they’d be aching for his or her own kitchen, living space, and the freedom and responsibility that comes with "The Real World." But, coterming, or rather, the option of a prolonged adolescence, is popular precisely because of the fear of The Real World. 

Stanford students’ predisposition toward indefinite stays at our country club of a university is a sign that adulthood has no longer become as appealing as it once was. Just as young adults are shunning typical markers of aging like getting their driver's licenses (I am guilty of this) and living by themselves, many Stanford students avoid what we are precisely here to do: graduate and move on with our lives.

The most common reason I hear for coterming is employability. Those who coterm in computer science (CS), the most popular coterm degree (though, CS is also the most popular undergrad major and PhD program), are picking up a degree that may help them in the now-precarious workforce. Liberal arts majors who want to become corporate can pick up the Sustainability coterm to work in ESG. When I ask my friends the question, "Why coterm?", the most common answer is to pick up skills to get a job. I usually ask my conversation partner: "What can you learn in a fifth year that you didn’t learn in a fourth? What can you learn in a coterm that you can’t learn on the job?"

The second most common reason is the desire to stay close to one’s friends for a fifth year. Living minutes—maybe even next door—to one’s friends is a precious experience. But, there is virtue to moving on with life, from admitting that there is a natural rhythm to life that demands we move from one stage to the next. Just as it’s awkward for a college freshman to show up at a high school prom, it is a bit strange to see 24-year-olds and even 25-year-olds who are still lurking around the Row.

Yes, there are some students with a thirst for knowledge who use their fifth year to spend some additional hours in the basement of Green. Yes, learning a new programming language may increase your starting salary by a bit. 

But, the vast majority of students who coterm use these thinly veiled excuses to disguise their allergy to adulthood. The inability to admit that they don’t know what they want to do with their life and that they need a fifth year to figure that out. To those considering the coterm, ask yourself: will one extra year costing $90,000 in an artificially extended adolescence really get you that?

You don’t need to be certain that your first post-grad job will be the start of a lifelong career in something you love. One of the perks of our modern economy is that new grads often try on different hats to see what they like. You’re more likely to gain this insight working than staying at Stanford for a fifth year.

I am excited for The Real World: to have my own apartment, to work a nine-to-five, to be responsible for cooking my own meals and maintaining friendships beyond convenience (perhaps even getting my driver’s license!). If you’re wise with your four years at Stanford, you should be, too—without insisting that you extend your stay.

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