The stereotypical college career lasts four years, but many Americans are taking an increasingly different timeline. According to a 2017 article in the New York Times, only 41 percent of students graduate in four years. Numerous factors contribute to that statistic. Preventative tips and tricks are often given to incoming college students, which includes committing to a major as early as possible and avoiding a transfer between schools.
Most institutions define a full-time course load as 12 credits, but to meet the requirements to graduate in four years, one would have to take 15 credits each semester. Around 40 percent of undergraduates work 30 hours a week or more. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, a nonprofit research institute, students who work more than 25 hours a week are more likely to struggle to pass their courses. The center also noted that only 45% of students who work more than 25 hours are able to keep a grade-point average above 3.0 and that the average GPA for university students continued to decrease with the number of work hours they took.
Tom Lindsay, a higher education contributor for Forbes, explained, “Between 1985 and 2011, average tuition nationwide increased 498 percent—more than four times the rate of general inflation (114 percent) as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI).” According to Politifact, the inflation-adjusted federal minimum wage was higher in 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office, than it was in 2013.
Going to college is the most expensive it has ever been, and wages have not kept up with that increase. Some students are fortunate enough to have their tuition paid by their parents, live at home during their schooling, receive an allowance for expenses or a combination of the three. Many students do not have any of those opportunities and are the sole providers for themselves.
Many organizations and universities — including the U — have programs set up to help students graduate in four years. But these programs simply encourage students to take on more credits and make crucial career decisions early in their adulthood. They are not really considering the students that are working full-time jobs outside of school to pay for their rent, transportation, utilities, clothing, groceries and medical insurance. They do not account for how difficult it is to make decisions about the long-term future when the car needs new tires, there’s not much food in the fridge and payday is still a week away.
I’ll be 26 this year and I believe that this fall will be my 11th semester of college, even though I started right out of high school. Although I’ve always wanted to study communication, having the major picked out early did not necessarily streamline this experience. I was interested in many subjects. The classes offered to me in a university setting expanded my worldview far more than my high school experience. Entering my twenties, I discovered how important my relationships and traveling were to me, so I took various semesters off to move cities, volunteer in Thailand and spend time with family.
My entire adult life I have also had to provide for myself financially. I have always had to work more than 30 hours a week while going to school. Certain semesters I only took two classes because the scheduling was too intense, and other semesters I tried to white-knuckle my way through 16 credits. I have had to retake a few failed classes because life got in the way and I didn’t value my mental health. While my college career has been messy, expensive and stressful, I don’t regret any of it for a second.
Admittedly, I feel some bitterness that most Americans are digging into deeper and deeper holes of individual student debt while the state of New York and many European countries will pay for their students’ tuition. Yet I am still so grateful to have access to higher education at all. I love learning and expanding life’s possibilities. I have spent a lot of time shaming and blaming myself for not finishing my degree in the standard four years, but I’ve recently put that to an end. I know that I’ve learned many important lessons and received invaluable life experience during the times I wasn’t in school, and I am grateful for that time as well.
Until our country transitions to debt-free higher education, I think that it is pointless for a four-year time frame to be the societal and cultural standard for finishing college. There are millions of undergraduate students who, like me, are trying to make ends meet while also pursuing their dreams of higher education. We should not be piling shame and pressure onto them to finish their degree in a set amount of time — we should be applauding their efforts.
There should be no societal standard or timeline for anyone as they pursue education. Students today face many more obstacles than those in the past, and we need to change the conversation that implies that they are lazy and directionless because they aren’t moving ahead as quickly. Simultaneous financial burdens and technological advances are shifting our society in unprecedented ways. There is nothing valuable to be gained by petty comparisons of one timeline against another. Instead of picking apart the details of someone else’s journey, we should simply try to be more supportive of each other and the determination to improve our lives.