For Some College Students, Four Years Isn’t Enough

By: Emily DeFranco

To be a super senior isn’t a source of pride, but oftentimes of frustration for both the student and the school. When students take five or six years to graduate – whether it’s for reasons of early indecision and switching of majors, a semester or more of study abroad, or lack of seats in core courses – it affects not only their financial status but the school’s standing and reputation.

Some colleges are taking bold steps to address the situation including tripling the tuition for those who stay longer than four years. While SUNY New Paltz administrators are concerned about the school’s lengthy graduation rate, their efforts have so far been limited to nudging students and making more core courses available.

New Paltz sends only 7 out of 10 students in a freshmen class to the stage to receive diplomas after four years. The rest stay on in most cases to finish up within a few years after.

Though it’s common understanding that most students that enroll in collegiate institutions graduate within four years, this may actually be a myth according to the SUNY New Paltz chart of Retention and Graduation Rates. Nearly three-quarters of students in the freshman class of 2005 were still enrolled four years later, but nearly half of them (48.5 percent) hadn’t graduated at the end of that fourth year.

By their fifth year, just over two-thirds had graduated, and after eight years, 70.5 percent had earned their diplomas.

From this chart it is also evident that there is also an upward trend over the years with the number of students who graduated after staying for at least a fifth year. Last year there were 215 fifth year students enrolled that graduated from New Paltz. Out of the 976 students in freshman class of 1999 only 58.8 percent of students graduated by their fifth year whereas for the freshman class of 2008, 71.9 percent graduated after five years.

There are several reasons an undergraduate student may remain enrolled longer than four years. The top two categories are “Availability of courses to fulfill major requirements” and “Availability of classes to fulfill General Education (GE) requirements,” according to the Spring 2013 Graduating Senior Survey Trend Report from the Communications and Media and Communications Department of SUNY New Paltz. These statistics would lead one to believe that late graduation is a product of administrative issues, as in not entirely the students’ ‘fault.’

Super Seniors Side BarJenna Netrosio, a fifth-year accounting student, said she tried to graduate on time by taking a summer class before her senior year, but then during the year failed a prerequisite class putting her back behind schedule.

“Since in my last semester I only needed two more accounting classes,” Netrosio said. “I decided to add the Finance major.”

This example combines some of the top issues from the New Paltz survey; this is most often the case.

Another student found herself in a similar predicament after transferring to New Paltz.

Eleyna Zappulla, a fifth-year childhood education and early childhood education major with a concentration in biology, transferred to New Paltz after completing four years at another institution and taking a long time to choose a major. She said all of her credits transferred but the programs at New Paltz had some different requirements so she will have completed six years of undergraduate studies before her expected graduation date.

SUNY schools have adopted a “Seamless Transfer” policy that, in theory, puts all general education courses and some basic level major/minor courses on an equal level so that they are accepted across all SUNY degree programs. This is not always the case. On this matter New Paltz Provost Phillip Mauceri said, “I think we have a really good relationship with the Community Colleges that are in our region at least (we have articulation agreements with them that make it fairly easy to transfer what they’re taking there to the programs here)…it may be difficult with some of the private schools…things may not match up. But if you’re within SUNY or even within the State of New York it is certainly a lot easier.  [At New Paltz] we also have additional GE standards above and beyond the SUNY standard.”

Study abroad programs can also extend an academic career. Even if the university sponsors the program and the trip is credit-based, the credits earned may not be applicable to the students major. These indicate that often it is actions of the student that result in their extended stay.

In addition to the social stresses, another issue for super seniors is the cost of their continued education. Each semester tacks more money onto an already accumulated bill and often means taking out additional student loans.

An article published by the Associated Press on foxnews.com explains how officials of California State University are taking action to encourage student of complete their undergraduate course of study ‘on time.’ “After gentler efforts to prod super seniors toward graduation, California State officials want to start charging hefty fees that could almost triple the cost for students who have completed five years of full-time undergraduate work.” The article describes how the program is aimed at encouraging students to finish their degrees faster to make room for new undergrads in an era of scarce resources.

The problem with increasing enrollment and not enough students graduating on time is that there are not enough teaching resources to support a continuously increasing students body if they are not increased proportionally. Professor Lynn Spangler, associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, explains that if we aren’t going to increase the tools and space needed for more students, then we’ve got to limit enrollment. “Unless [we get] the resources we need, it’s not frankly ethical to keep having more students come in and promise them they can get out in four years.”

SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian touched upon this issue in his State of the College address early this semester and the Memorandum from the Provost continuously alludes to a timely graduation. This indicates there is a possibility that we may be looking at similar policy changes here in the near future.

According to Provost Mauceri there is a new system in the works with the intention of graduating more students with better degrees. “I keep discussing this with the department heads and chairs,” he said. “It’s what we call the 4+1 plan. So you basically stay here for four years and that additional year you focus on a graduate program. And so 4+1 means you’re here for five years but you graduate with a BA and an MA. And usually that senior year you’re taking some graduate courses so you’re kind of finishing your undergraduate and starting your graduate at the same time…this plan is actually quite common across the country.” The business school is the first to begin testing this program with their MBA students.

In theory students and parents will like this because you’re getting “more bang for your buck.”

superseniors

The Provost has two other proposals:

1. “Spreading the schedule across all what’s referred to all time zones throughout the day so that you face less of the dilemma where you have two courses that meet at the same time…and then you have to choose. We want to be able to offer a range of courses throughout the day. On the students part that may mean you have to take a class at 8 a.m. or later in the day so students also have to be willing to take the courses that they need at times they are not fans of.”

2. Better, more efficient advising. “Another way to help this problem is in regards to advising. It’s important to sit down and talk about where students want to go with their degree and present a plan with their faculty. It takes both to understand that. We need students to look at their progress reports when they meet with their advisors to know where they stand on their deficiencies…As an institution it is important that we work towards better pathways at the course level. So that would mean helping students to be better informed about the decisions that they’re making about which classes to take. I’ve asked all programs to come up with what are called curricular maps. It maps out the process—certain classes you should take as a freshman, certain ones as a sophomore, etc. There should be a progression—we need to provide that to our students so it’s easier to plan. If you know you’re a sophomore and there’s only 10 classes appropriate to choose form in your major for that level it would be easier to choose…Also every major has an eight semester plan so students should be looking at that to plan these things out working with their advisors.”

It’s not all bad. Some students find they need extra time to take all the courses they want, to earn a dual degree or study abroad, or simply grow up and figure out what they want to do.

An article “What is a Super Senior,” published on WiseGeek.com explains how “some students just find they do better if they take fewer classes a semester. A student with learning disabilities might be able to succeed well in four classes, but not in five. Furthermore some students may need to take classes that don’t count toward as units earned for graduation, such as remedial courses or English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.”

While adding debt to their tab, however, staying in college can also postpose paying off student loans and may actually be the only economical way to make it through school for some students. This strategy of staying in school as long as possible is sometimes referred to as being a ‘professional student.’

The stereotyped expectation of a four-year graduation rate may be a misguided ideal.

Sometimes life gets in the way.