Breaking the myth of the four-year graduate

Story by Emily Van de Riet • Photos by Andrew McMunn

One of the most stressful parts about creating your college schedule is figuring out how to earn your bachelor’s degree in just four years. That’s how long it’s supposed to take, right?

Well, maybe not. The reality is that many college students do not complete their degrees in four years. The Complete College America (CCA) organization found in a 2014 study that depending on the university, between only 19 and 36 percent of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree graduated in four years. The study also found that while taking 15 credit hours per semester is recommended, 50 percent of students do not take enough per semester to graduate on time.

Webster University student Tony Bottini will not complete his bachelor’s degree within four years. This year marks his fourth, but he just recently found out that he will not be graduating until May 2019.

Bottini attended St. Louis Community College (STLCC) for two years right out of high school and later transferred to Webster. He says he fell behind at STLCC when he failed math, but the biggest reason he won’t be graduating on time is because he recently changed his major from media communications to advertising and marketing.

“It’s been stressful, but it’s the right decision,” Bottini says. “I still don’t have it fgured out, but you know, you change your major sometimes.

”Bottini is not alone. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 80 percent of students change their majors at least once before they graduate.

Webster student Livie Hall also falls into this category. When she started college, coming to Webster straight out of high school, she assumed her degree would take only four years to earn. She declared journalism as her major right away. Due to financial problems, Hall transferred to STLCC after only one year at Webster.

“I continued journalism, but I realized I wasn’t actually happy with it,” Hall says. “But with other stuff going on in my life, I told myself to stick it out.

”After one year at STLCC, Hall was able to transfer back to Webster for her junior year. Her original four-year plan would have had her graduate in May 2017, but now she is anticipating graduation in May 2018. She also just recently switched her major to media communications.

“Emotionally, the reason I didn’t graduate on time is because too late in my career I realized I didn’t want to do what my 18-year-old self thought I wanted to do,” Hall says. “Academically, I wasn’t doing well in classes, so I put myself in a really bad position.”

But even if switching their majors put both Bottini and Hall behind on their anticipated graduation, it might not be a bad thing. The Education Advisory Board found that after examining data from 78,000 college students across the country, students who finalize their major in their first semester have a 79 percent graduation rate, whereas students who change their major have an 83 percent graduation rate.

Transferring schools is another huge reason why students don’t graduate in four years. The CCA study found that 60 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients change schools at least once, and nearly half of them lose some or all credits because of broken transfer policies. Luckily for Bottini, he doesn’t believe transferring schools had much to do with his extended graduation date. Hall, on the other hand, does.

“Classes and credits didn’t transfer as I was told they would, so when I came back to Webster, I ended up being behind,” Hall says. “It added time.”

Both Bottini and Hall acknowledge that their professors and advisors have made coming to terms with late graduation much easier. Bottini, who switched his major from media communications to marketing, says his advisor explained the advantages of switching his major, including increased internship opportunities. Hall says her professor stressed that taking extra time to graduate is not abnormal.

Hall’s professor is right. The CCA study found that nationwide, only 50 of more than 580 public universities graduate the majority of their students on time. A New York Times article reported that education policy experts are now using benchmarks of six years to earn a bachelor’s degree and three years to earn an associate’s degree.

At this point, both Bottini and Hall are happy with their decisions to change majors, even if it resulted in a longer college career.

“I found something that is a little bit more tailored to what I want to do, and I’m happier with what I’m taking,” Hall says. “I’m OK with the fact that I didn’t graduate in four years because I’m still pursuing a degree, and I would rather take five plus years and do something that I’m happy doing than compact everything into four years and be unhappy.”


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