By Kayla Hampton
Western Michigan University will be implementing a new academic planning program called Degree Works in May of 2013 to reduce the increasing number of six-year graduates.
More than half of students who attend a four-year college obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a recent study conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Western Michigan University’s current six-year graduation rate reflects these research findings. The University’s Office of the Registrar reports that the rate is 54 percent while the four-year graduation rate is about 25 percent.
Students who take an extra year or two to complete their degrees may face wage discrepancies and fewer job opportunities compared to their peers who graduate from college within four years, according to a 2012 study conducted by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research. However, this study reported that it is still advantageous to get a degree even if it takes six years to do so. Many college administrators agree.
Carrie Cumming, the interim registrar at WMU, said that the ultimate goal for students should be to get a degree, not to graduate within a certain number of years. She said that the new Degree Works program will aid future students with their academic planning and help them avoid errors that could delay graduation.
“It will allow students to work with advisors and create a four year course plan. They can plan out what courses they will take each semester, run their plan against the graduation audit, and it will tell them if there are any classes in the plan that they don’t need or need to add. It will be a very nice planning tool for students,” Cumming said.
Nick Gauthier, a pre-law and general curriculum advisor for The College of Arts and Sciences at WMU, said that he has personally noticed the trend of college students graduating later.
“Finances are the biggest factor. I have seen a marked increase in students who are working full time and going to school full time. Some take fewer classes at a time, but the others bite off more than they can handle. Their classes don’t go well and they wind up taking longer to graduate because they didn’t do well,” Gauthier said.
The student enrollment reports generated by Western’s Office of Institutional Research reflect Gauthier’s observations. From the fall semester of 2011 to the fall semester of 2012, the number of full-time undergraduates decreased by 4.1 percent while the number of part-time undergraduates increased by 3.8 percent.
Gauthier, who has been an advisor since 2005, said that when he first started advising, he saw a lot of people whose academics were being affected because they had made poor choices.
“Now, I see more people who are just spread too thin,” Gauthier said.
Even though Gauthier has seen an increasing number of six-year graduates, Gauthier said that he does not view graduating late as negative.
“Based on the job market and the economy, it can be challenging to figure out what to do next. But it depends on how you spend the time. Employers like to see students with more maturity and a wider range of skills that make them more competitive in the job market,” Gauthier said.
While Gauthier said that taking longer than four years to graduate can have some advantages, Maria Fales, a 24-year-old WMU student, said that it can also be a very stressful experience.
“There are several factors that contributed to my college career lasting almost six and a half years. The primary reason I did not graduate in four years is mostly due to finances. Even though I have been on my own since I was 17, I didn’t qualify for student aid because of my parents’ wages. With both of them in college and working full-time jobs, and both of my siblings in college at the same time I was, it was impossible for them to financially assist any of us kids. As a result, I had to work a lot and that often meant taking less than a full load, which of course slowed my progress,” said Fales, who is a behavioral analysis major at WMU.
Fales said that she knows many other students who are in a position similar to her own.
“I have met several students who have been at Western for more than four years. The common denominators that I have found for the extended stays are finances and changes in majors. And more often than not, the student is working multiple jobs on top of taking a very full load at Western,” she said.
Fales said that people are not surprised when she discusses how long she has been attending college.
“Most people have an understanding that it is now normal to be in college for longer than four years,” Fales said.
Krista Major, a 21-year-old senior at WMU, said that she can understand why some people would be unable to graduate in four years, but that it is something that she took great pains to avoid.
“I had everything really planned out. I had a color-coded chart, and I made sure to take my general education requirements before I transferred to Western [from Kalamazoo Valley Community College]. I think sometimes people get caught up because they don’t know what classes they need. It is important to know the requirements,” said Major, who is double-majoring in religion and anthropology.
Major said that in spite of her extensive planning, she has faced academic issues that could have delayed her goal of graduating at the end of her fourth year of college.
“A religion class that I took at KVCC transferred as a three-credit hour class instead of four. That put me a credit behind in my plan, and I thought I might have to take summer classes in order to stay on track. But I talked with my advisor and learned about an independent study option that would fix the problem, so I ended up going that route,” Major said.
Major said that despite the initial setback, she expects to graduate next spring in four years as she had planned.
“Out of all my friends, I’m not aware of anyone who graduated or is planning to graduate in four years. Some of them failed classes or took a year off and never came back. A few of them say there is no way to graduate in four years,” Major said.
Major said that she disagrees with this view.
“Graduating in four years is hard. It requires a lot of time management, but it is not impossible. I’ve heard about people who have taken more credit hours than me and worked more hours outside of school than me and they’re doing it,” Major said.
Like Major, Brandon Snyder, a junior at Western, also faced the prospect of delayed graduation.
“When I transferred to Western from my community college, there were some errors concerning my AP classes. They were not my forms, so I’ll have to contact my high school and have them resend the information. And I have certain requirements for my majors. If I missed one class or had to retake a class, I would have to stay at Western later. I would be behind a whole semester and the financial burden would worry me,” Snyder said.
Snyder, who is double-majoring in psychology and sociology with a concentration in psychology, said that he has mapped out his schedule for each semester, triple-checked his academic requirements and met with all of his advisors in order to help him stay on track to graduate.
“Graduating late isn’t something that I would want for myself, but I don’t think any less of people who do it,” Snyder said.
Cumming said that there are some steps students can take to ensure they achieve their goal of graduating within four years.
“Students should take advantage of the tools available to them, work with the advisors, make sure they are taking courses that apply to their degree, register for their classes as soon as possible when registration opens and study hard,” she said.
Regardless of whether a student plans to graduate in four years or six, Gauthier said he also has some advice for students.
“Don’t be so concerned with how quickly you get to the finish line, be concerned with how you get there,” Gauthier said.