Ever wonder why colleges post six-year graduation rates for an undergraduate degree? Transferring schools, changing majors, work - even factors outside of student control - greatly impact four-year graduation rates.
Here's why one academic dean recommends that students work with advisers and career counselors early on so they can develop a clear plan for their time in college and increase the odds of graduating within less than six years:
The Myth of the Four-Year College Degree
By Victor Luckerson @TIMEBusiness, Jan. 10, 2013
Another graduation ceremony has come and gone, and Chauncey Woodard is still a student at the University of Alabama. He came to UA in the spring of 2008 after some time in community college, expecting to spend, at most, four years at the school. After being forced to take a semester off in 2010 to save up more money for his education, he expects to graduate in August 2013 at the earliest. “For me to get my education, I either have to go deep in debt or drag it out like I’m doing now,” Woodard, a construction-engineering major, says. “You get to see a lot of people move on, and you’re still here. That kind of gets to you around graduation.”
Woodard’s not alone in extending his university studies beyond a typical senior year. While undergraduate education is typically billed as a four-year experience, many students, particularly at public universities, actually take five, six or even more years to attain a degree. According to the Department of Education, fewer than 40% of students who enter college each year graduate within four years, while almost 60% of students graduate in six years. At public schools, less than a third of students graduate on time.
“It’s a huge issue for society,” says Matthew Chingos, an author of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. “It’s a huge issue for the individual students who are spending more money on tuition than they need to. The longer they wait to graduate and get a job, those are extra years of their careers when they’re in college and not working and not making money.” Chingos points out that delayed graduation at public schools also affects taxpayers who are subsidizing students’ education.
Reasons for delaying graduation are numerous. For students who choose to participate in co-ops or internships during the school year, it can be tough to fit in all the necessary courses. Overcrowded classes can make it impossible for students to fulfill degree requirements in a timely manner. And the common practice of changing majors midway through college can make a four-year degree impractical.
For schools themselves, there are advantages to shuttling students through efficiently. Four-year graduation rates can affect colleges’ national rankings, which are used heavily in recruiting students. A shorter time to degree also means more students receive an education from a given school, and it can potentially mean a less crowded campus.
At Purdue University, improving the four-year graduation rate is a priority for administrators. The school hopes to improve its four-year rate from 42% to 50% by 2014 and to 70% in the coming decade. “The biggest thing we can do to lower cost is make sure that every student who wants to finish in four years has the ability do so,” says Tim Sands, acting president of Purdue. “If we can increase our graduation rate and decrease time to degree modestly … we give more students an opportunity to get a Purdue degree.”
In recent years Purdue has launched a battery of exploratory courses across disciplines to help students get a better idea of their interests before they commit to a major. An academic boot camp in the summer before freshman year is aimed at students who didn’t have access to advanced courses in high school to ensure they’ll be prepared for college coursework. The school is even considering switching to a trimester system, which would aim to shorten students’ time to degree by making more courses available during the summer months.
Other schools have also adopted inventive methods to promote graduating in four years. At the University of North Carolina, where the four-year graduation rate exceeds 80%, students must graduate in eight regular semesters to have additional majors and minors recognized on their transcripts.
“We decided that we would embrace the fact that we are a four-year university,” says Bobbi Owen, UNC’s senior associate dean for undergraduate education. “If you look at the statistics, something like 29,000 students applied to be part of the fall entering class in 2012. If there’s that many students seeking 3,900 spaces in a class, if the seniors are graduating, you actually have room to bring in those 3,900 students.”
With schools focused on getting students through, the national four-year graduation rate has crept upward in recent years, from 34% of the 1996 starting cohort to 39% of the 2005 starting cohort. Still, schools acknowledge that there’s more they could do.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Purdue’s Sands says. He recommends that students take advantage of advisers and career counselors starting in their freshman year so that they can develop a coherent plan for their time in college, whether it be short or long. “Don’t just go semester to semester. Really think ahead. If they do that right off the bat, they’re much more likely to be successful and complete their studies in a reasonable amount of time.”
By Amanda Collins
From virtual tours to online applications, when it comes to college, high school students make many important decisions with the click of a mouse.
But so do the people on the other side of the process, warns a local college and career counselor, who says that online presence is increasingly becoming a two-way street in the college application process.
“This is huge for students during the admission process,” said Michele Hearn, a member of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling. She offers personalized career and college counseling online to people across the country, and to locals right at her Sutton-based business, Hearn College and Career. “One of the first items I cover in college counseling before applications go out is the subject of cultivating a positive online presence. While not all admissions committee members check student profiles online, many admit that they do.”
According to a study by Kaplan Test Prep, at least 35 percent of college admissions officers look at candidates’ online profiles on social networking sites. But in the same study, more than half of students queried said they didn’t think their online presence would be a factor in whether or not they got in to their school of choice.
“Students need to know that whatever they post or are tagged in is public information and may be used in the decision process,” said Hearn.
She explained that admissions counselors want to know more about the person behind the application.
“A lot of candidates can look very similar on paper, when you’re just looking at a list of grades and test scores. Admissions officers want to know more about the person, their story, their goals, and how they’ll fit at a school,” she said.
Instead of letting Facebook photos or tweets do the talking, Hearn recommends students focus on sharing their story in their college essay.
“It can be a daunting task, but sometimes people underestimate the power of an essay. It’s the students chance to tell a story only they can tell,” she said. “It’s not just about being concise and well-written – it can be much more than that. It’s something that should take time and effort.”
Hearn recommends students start thinking about the future long before filling out applications and typing up essays. She works with students from junior high school through college to explore career ideas because she said having an understanding of your interests and strengths is a key to success.
The College Board recommends that students start thinking about college as early as ninth grade. Experts there suggest students find a mentor who they can talk to about their goals and go to for advice on mapping it out.
“I’ve never worked with a student or job seeker who said it wasn’t worth their time to talk to someone who can help them identify their strengths and put their best foot forward,” she said. “Support along the way can save you time and worry and move you forward with efficiency and sanity.”
Hearn helps clients in-person and online in personalized and confidential sessions. For more of her tips or to arrange a free consultation, visit hearncollegeandcareer.com, or contact her at 508-277-2944 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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