Colleges Kick-Start Sluggish Students

Alarmed at the rise in students on the five-year-or-more plan, colleges are finding creative ways to graduate them faster.

Just 50.9 percent of college students in the country completed their bachelor’s degree in five years or fewer, according to a report last year by ACT, Inc., the testing service. The rates are the lowest in the history of the survey, which started in 1983.

"Students are continuing to take longer and longer to graduate," said Kirk Witzberger, of the ACT’s Office for the Enhancement of Educational Practices. "Schools are trying to do something."

The University of Minnesota has implemented a plan for incoming Fall 2002 freshmen that requires them to take a minimum of 13 credits, an average of between three and four courses, per semester. The school will charge a flat-tuition rate for any credits taken above 13.

At the University of Iowa, new students are now required to sign a contract promising to graduate in four years. They’re not penalized if they breach that contract, however.

And the University of Texas has put in a flat-rate tuition policy, whereby students won’t be charged for taking more than 14 course hours a semester — essentially making class time beyond that free.

"You normally think of college as a four-year stint," explained Sheldon Ekland-Olson, executive vice president and provost at Texas. "They ought to be getting out a little faster."

The reasons for the extended university stays are many. For Venora Hung, a fifth-year senior at Minnesota, her triple major in the business school kept her there an extra year.

"I wanted a more comprehensive business background," explained Hung, 22, who graduates next month. She and others say the problem isn’t so much that students are taking longer, but that those who do are less likely to graduate at all.

That has Hung worried about the implications of the new requirement that students maintain at least 13 credits.

"I’m divided on it," she said. "It’s going to be great for people going full-time. If they can’t afford to go full-time, somehow I feel like we’re discriminating against that group."

Experts say a major factor for the prolonged college experience is that a greater cross-section of students is attending college today. There is more socio-economic, ethnic, age and lifestyle variety among students. As a result, more people enter college later, work during school and attend part-time.

More than 75 percent of students who begin college under the age of 20 graduate within five years, according to statistics from the American Council on Education. But 40 percent of undergraduates today are over age 24; their lower graduation rates bring down the overall average.

Among traditional-aged students, 45 percent finish within four years and 33 percent graduate within five, according to the ACE. That number drops drastically when the students are 30 and over — to 13 percent finishing in four years and 43 percent in five.

The tight job market has also discouraged some students from rushing to graduation. And more students spend time abroad or load up on double or triple majors that further extend their education.

"You don’t want to put too much pressure on everybody to get out in four years because it may damage important and very legitimate educational experiences," said Ekland-Olson.

He said the crackdown on lagging students at Texas targets those who graduate after six years or longer. That's the group that most often winds up draining resources and taking away slots from incoming freshmen.

Priorities on college campuses have changed, too, adding to the sluggish-graduate problem. The image of the poor, starving student simply isn’t as accepted anymore. While some students work through school because they have to, others are doing it because they want to.

"We don’t know to what extent it’s driven by real financial need and to what extent it’s driven by lifestyle pressure," said Linda Ellinger, assistant vice provost of undergraduate education at Minnesota. "There’s a cultural pressure to 'have.’"

Grade inflation at the high school level — which has become a national trend over the past two decades — isn’t helping, either.

In 2001, according to ACT, 44.1 percent of students reported having an A average — up from 23.2 percent of students in 1989. But ACT test scores have remained a constant.

"Their level of achievement is really the same, but students think they’re better prepared than they really are," Witzberger said. "That’s got to slow down their progress in college."

State governments have gotten involved in getting students to graduate faster.

"There is some legislative pressure — for public schools anyway — because the state is (partially) picking up the tab," said Witzberger.