Ari Odzer

Universities Pushing Students to Graduate in Four Years

Most people tend to think of college as a four-year deal: A student studies, does the work in various classes and emerges four years later with a bachelor's degree.

The reality is that most college students are on the five, six or seven year plan, if they graduate at all. According to the nonprofit group, Complete College America, less than 20 percent of incoming freshmen will earn a degree in four years. 

"The numbers are striking," said FIU's Dean of Undergraduate Students, Douglas Robertson. "The real tragedy is students who take a long time to graduate and then don't graduate, so they pile up debt and then don't get the degree that gets them a better job."

Robertson said nationwide, only half of freshmen are successful enough to graduate in any time period. 50 percent fail to earn a degree.

To change those numbers, FIU started a program called the Graduation Success Initiative (GSI) four years ago. Since then, the university has improved its six-year graduation rate by 16 percent, earning national recognition for the achievement and for the GSI program.

It works by using data to track every student. As freshmen, GSI helps FIU students choose an appropriate major, counselors create a path of coursework to achieve that goal, and then constant feedback keeps students on track. There's particular focus on the 17 gateway courses.

"Gateway courses are those early ones that you need to get through to move on, that have high failure rates, and these 17 courses touch 41,000 enrollments a year," Robertson said.

So FIU set out to change the way those courses are taught. As an example, it created the Mastery Math Lab, a sort of one-stop help center for students struggling with required college-level math. 

At Nova Southeastern University, the Undergraduate Success Center is fighting the same battle: How to get students to succeed in a timely manner.

"When we meet with freshmen their very first term, we give them a four-year academic plan, saying you're a marketing major, follow this plan, freshman year, fall, winter, sophomore year, you can graduate in four years if you can stick to the plan," said Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Dan Sullivan. 

The problem, of course, is that most students can't stick to the plan, for various reasons. Some change majors. Some go abroad. Some fail a required class. Some get homesick and transfer. 

"I can believe it because there's a lot of things that come up in those four years that might cause students to either drop out or for them to struggle, but for me as an individual, I want to beat those odds and be that student who's graduating in four years," said NSU junior Lacei Sams, who is from St. Louis. 

The NSU Success Center keeps tabs on every student through its Early Alert system, and then provides what it calls success coaching. Instead of trying to weed students out, these days colleges are trending toward pulling out all the stops to help them succeed.

"We reach out to the student and we say, 'Hey, you know, your faculty is sharing with us that you're having some difficulties, how can we help you?'" said program director Sheila Fabius. "We just look at everything, we take a holistic approach to seeing how we can help them, academically or in balancing, prioritizing their schedules."

The math adds up quickly. Every extra year in college costs tens of thousands of dollars. For some students, that's an incentive to finish up on time. 

"For me, college really is expensive. So for me it's just easier to graduate on time, efficiently, and as quickly as possible," Sams said.

The concept of earning a college degree in four years may be on life support, but it's not dead yet.

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