(Graphic by Cynthia Luu)
(Graphic by Cynthia Luu)
(Graphic by Cynthia Luu)

College used to be the best four years of your life. Now it’s just a lukewarm five-, six- or seven-year trudge towards a degree.

Being a super senior is a growing trend nationwide. According to a statement published by the National Center for Educational Statistics in May 2014, “59 percent of first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in fall 2006 completed the degree at that institution within 6 years.”

At the U, according to the Office of Budgeting and Institutional Analysis’ common data set recorded for 2014-2015, in 2008 approximately 24 percent of students graduated in four years or fewer. 25 percent graduated in five, and 13 percent graduated in six. Overall, 62 percent of students graduated in six years or fewer.

There are many reasons students choose to extend their undergraduate education beyond the traditional four years. Sometimes it’s a matter of credits not transferring from a study abroad or another institution. Students could be a few classes short of the graduation requirement or could have switched their major and have to stay an extra semester or two. Some individuals want to prolong their graduation so they can take prerequisites for graduate schools. Other times, it can be a financial issue where students take time off or attend school part-time so they can work in order to pay tuition.

Cindy Chen, a flute performance major, will be a fifth-year senior and chose to stay because she wanted to complete her Honors thesis and finish her political science minor. Chen said she realized her career goals would require more knowledge than just a music degree could provide.

“There were people who did tell me there might be a stigma with making the decision to take a fifth year,” Chen said. “I realized that there are a lot of opportunities that you can no longer take advantage of once you graduate. Internships, fellowships, research programs, etc. Many of them require that you are a student.”

Joy Velarde, an academic advisor for mechanical engineering, said U students in the sciences are encouraged to take 4 1/2 to five years to complete their degree.

“As we’ve seen in previous semesters, if they try to take the full load they end up repeating and extending by default,” Velarde said.

Velarde, who used to be an advisor for a social science department, said she noticed a difference in how vigorous the course work was for science majors compared to humanities or business. Most science majors need to finish certain prerequisites that aren’t outlined in the four-year plan because they’re expected to finish them in high school or complete them early in their freshman year. However, Velarde said even when all the prerequisites are met, completing a STEM degree in four years can still be incredibly strenuous. Comparatively, she saw that social sciences majors could complete their course load in four years in addition to a second major or a minor.

Thomas Richmond, a professor in chemistry, said it wouldn’t surprise him if the average time to graduate in a STEM program was one or two semesters over the traditional four years, including summers.

Keti Amirkhanashvili, a senior in biology, was waitlisted for medical school and said if she isn’t accepted, she will pursue a second bachelor degree in psychology.

“From other people who have graduated, I’ve heard them say, ‘Stay in school, the real world sucks,’ ” Amirkhanashvili said. “I know a lot of people who are fifth-year seniors, and I feel like it’s very common, especially in a major like pre-med. It can demand a lot from you as far as volunteering and extracurriculars as well as trying to balance a personal life.”

However, the shift to spend more time in undergrad at the U may be because of Utah’s culture. Mike Martineau, interim director at the Office of Budgeting and Institutional Analysis, said nationwide, students are taking longer to complete their degrees as compared to 40 or 50 years ago. For U students, the time spent in undergrad can be prolonged for many reasons, including students starting school and then deferring enrollment for military service or LDS missions.

“In the past 10 years, we’ve seen a greater portion of students coming back to school to finish their degree or coming back to complete graduate degrees,” Martineau said. “You see students realizing the value of a bachelor’s degree or higher … It’s a tremendous investment, so more and more students are taking advantage of that.”

There are also differences in graduation rates for students attending a public university versus a private one. According to a study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 64 percent of students at a private school will graduate in four years compared to 37.1 percent at a public university. Overall, the study showed that private institutions tend to see more students graduate within six years than public schools do.

Amirkhanashvili said she’s seen the difference between her experience at the U compared to her siblings, who are attending private schools.

“I feel the U requires a lot more classes than other schools,” Amirkhanashvili said. “My siblings took four classes per semester and graduated with double majors.”

Amirkhanashvili said she has taken classes every summer since her freshman year. Velarde noted that most students at the U will graduate with more than the required 122 credit hours requirement. This is partly due to students who bring in credits they transferred from another institution and first-time freshmen who start university with AP or IB credits. However, some majors simply require students to take more credits to complete coursework and earn their degree.

Even though college can at times seem like a slow climb up a giant hill, Chen is still enthusiastic about her experience and will use the extra time she has to grow.

“Someone once told me that an undergraduate degree is more about breadth of experience. Graduate school is where you will get depth of experience,” Chen said. “I think taking the time as an undergraduate to really figure out my passions and interests will help me position myself, careerwise, in the long run.”

c.luu@chronicle.utah.edu

@cynthia_luu

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