You may know them by the increasingly popular term "Super Seniors," or by the more official administrative term "fifth-year undergraduate." They are the students who take more than four years to finish a four-year college degree program, and their numbers are increasing.
There are many different reasons that a student might take longer to graduate, explained Dr. Randi Schneider, director of Enrollment Management at Kent State Trumbull. On the one hand, it might be an intentional choice by the student. Students who are nervous about college might decide to take things at a slower pace. They may decide to work full- or part-time while going to school, or they may have other responsibilities such as children, elderly parents or other relatives to care for. Additionally, students with more than one major or minor will have to take extra courses, which can delay graduation.
Other reasons are unavoidable. If a student's source of funding doesn't cover a full load, the student might opt to take only as many courses as he or she can afford. A student might also decide to change majors after completing a significant number of courses, which essentially requires the student to start over.
Students who come to college lacking in certain academic skills will have to take additional pre-college-level coursework as determined by placement tests. "While some students might only be required to take one additional class, it is very possible that a student could be required to take several classes that will help with mathematics, reading, and writing skills," said Schneider.
Dr. Karen Becker, coordinator of the Reading and Study Skills Center at YSU, pointed out that class offerings can also put students behind schedule. "Programs are set up still around a four-year cycle," said Becker, explaining that if a student misses the chance to take a pre-requisite, he or she may have to wait a year or so before that course is offered again.
Schneider also points out that how long a student decides to spend in school should be a personal decision. Becker has a similar approach. "I don't know that there's a right time and a wrong time to graduate," said Becker. She recommends that students be flexible and realize that sometimes they can't finish in four years. Becker also suggested that students not be afraid of extending their time in college if it means they can take advantage of opportunities, such as studying abroad or participating in an impressive internship.
However, there are clear-cut benefits to graduating faster that students should consider when planning for college. Students who stick to their timelines will keep up with classmates in their majors, meaning they will see some of the same people in each of their classes. "Students then get to know each other and have great peer support for study groups and projects," Schneider explained.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit is money. "Each semester a student is in school, they are paying tuition and fees," said Schneider. Additionally, each extra semester that a student is in school is time that the student could be using to earn income at a job.
Becker warns that students who take longer than necessary to graduate can lose their college momentum. "How long can you keep going back to school?" said Becker. Students can simply lose their passion. "The carrot dangles in front of you that much longer," she added.
Whichever path students choose, there are some tips for students to avoid extra and unnecessary semesters.
Becker's biggest suggestion is for students to see an academic adviser. If students feel like they're falling behind or don't know what courses they need to take when, they should see an adviser before it becomes a problem. Students should also have well-defined plans and goals: "What am I going to do, why am I going to do it, and how am I going to do it?" Becker recommended that students answer these questions as specifically as possible.
If students are thinking of transferring from a community college to a university after their first two years, they should be aware that some courses might not transfer. However, students can tackle this issue by working with their community college to make sure they're taking transferable courses. For example, Eastern Gateway Community College works with other universities to ensure that the maximum number of courses transfer. "When we know up front where a student is going, we can pretty much guarantee transferability," said Jim Baber, executive vice president of EGCC.
Additionally, both Becker and Schneider recommend that students get help if they're struggling in their classes. "Focus on being academically successful so there is not a need to repeat any coursework," said Schneider. Students should also take time to determine their interests early on so they don't have to change majors down the road. "Use those general education classes in the first semester to try things out," Becker said.
Schneider also suggests taking some summer classes. "Summer classes can lighten the course load in the fall and spring," she explains.
Baber emphasizes how important it is that students think about and plan for their college years from the beginning instead of waiting until a problem occurs. "Graduation begins now," said Baber.