New college equation: 4+?=6x$

Posted: April 17, 2012

EVERY semester, without fail, this exchange happens. And every semester, I have to fight to convince the academic-advising staff that, indeed, I want to be on the four-year plan. Prior to enrolling, I had no idea that a different option existed.

But as I, and many other college students, have come to find, the four-year degree is more of a crumbling fa├žade than an attainable reality. In fact, four-year bachelor's degrees are becoming an abnormality, giving way to the far more pliable (and lucrative) five- and six-year degree plans.

In an ideal world, colleges would primarily be facilitators of education, secondarily financiers. Yet, today's college students are experiencing the absolute opposite - universities that are determined to keep them on campus (and paying) for as long as possible.

USATODAY, in a 2009 article, pinpointed this growing epidemic of the six-year plan: On average, four-year colleges graduate 53 percent of their entering students in six years. Based on this figure, even getting out in six years seems a challenge, let alone making it in four.

If this six-year graduation rate is laughable, thefou-year rates are simply pathetic.

According to U.S. News & World Report's latest college survey, the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University boasted only 61 percent and 62 percent four-year graduation rates, respectively. This number, by U.S. News & World Report standards, was considered "high," but in schools that respectively enroll 18,000 and 38,000 students annually, that's just over half who will make it out on graduation day. Temple University, another of Pennsylvania's more prestigious public colleges, rang in at a measly 37 percent.

But these numbers aren't just reserved for Pennsylvania, the state that boasts the second-most public-higher-education institutes in the nation. In fact, compared to smaller states' public university rates, like Kansas State (26%) and New Jersey's Rutgers (32%), Pennsylvania's four-year graduation rates could almost be considered exceptional.

Of course, it's easy to blame these numbers on student apathy, lack of motivation, and the usual college distractions.

But the cold, hard truth is that today's public universities are making it extremely difficult for students to walk out with a four-year-degree that actually takes four years.

Take, for example, Temple's advising strategies. According to an online university FAQ, most of Temple's majors require a minimum of 123 credit hours. Yet advisers (and online sources) routinely encourage students to take 15-credit semesters. Based on that number, eight semesters will give a student 120 credits.

So, commencement rolls around, and students who heeded the 15-a-semester advice of advisers will find themselves at least three credits - and another semester's worth of tuition - short.

It's an oft-cited defense that it is not the university's responsibility to get you a degree. It takes motivation and dedication on the student's part.

Yet sometimes even that isn't enough.

After painstakingly mapping out a degree plan, I recently met with an adviser to confirm that my chosen classes would fulfill the necessary requirements. She had only one problem - the requirements for my degree had changed, and one of the courses I had already registered for was no longer applicable. The Undergraduate Bulletin, a student's go-to reference guide on degree requirements, had never been updated.

"So there is no way I could have known this was no longer a requirement?" I ask.

"Well, no. Sorry. "

And they wonder why we wind up sticking around longer than four years.

Unfortunately, my story is only one of hundreds that relay the same fundamental problem with higher education's advising strategies, and the underlying reason that four-year degrees are things of the past: Information is unreliable. Advisers frequently contradict online sources, and online sources contradict university requirements. Of all the lessons students should learn in college, the most important is: Trust no one.

The sad fact of the matter is that the thirst for knowledge has become a commodity, and even the most ambitious students are relegated to dollar signs. The job description of higher education has changed; the mission is no longer to push students forward. It's to keep them in limbo, signing checks.

If public universities have any desire to stop this unrelenting dilution of education, they need to re-evaluate how they counsel their pupils. The system needs to start working with students, not against them.

In a world of skyrocketing tuition rates, trust me - we want to get out of here in four years. We just don't know how.

Allison Watkins is a sophomore journalism major at Temple University.

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