More and more, "four-year degree" is a bit of a misnomer

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October 26, 2011 - 7:00pm

As the Heuermann Clock on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's East Campus strikes noon, most students walking by are likely thinking about short-term tasks. Things like getting to the next class or mid-term exams, for example.

The years of classes and tests culminate in diplomas for most. How long it takes to receive a degree though is not the same for everyone.

"I know a lot of people who are staying here more than four years," said Kate Boone, a senior from Kalamazoo, Mich. "I know people on, like, the seven-year track."


Graphic by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Click the image for a chart comparing various graduation rates for 2009 bachelor's degrees at Nebraska colleges.


Photo by Perry Stoner, NET News

The Heuermann Clock on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's East Campus in Lincoln, Neb. Officials at Nebraska colleges are trying to turn back the amount of time it takes the average student to graduate.


The goal for most college students is to graduate. For some, that can be done in four years. But they are in the minority. Leaders at various Nebraska universities and colleges are looking for ways to decrease the amount of time it takes students to earn their degrees.

Boone is nearing completion of requirements for degrees in hydrology and soil science. She's not one of the minority finishing in four years.

"I'm not sure really where I went wrong," she said. "I never took fewer than 12 credits - mostly it was 15, 16 credits a semester, so I don't know."

Taylor Stelk is set to graduate in May. The Lincoln native is one of the 30 percent of UNL students who finish in four years.

"I will be a four-year graduate, yes," he said, adding, "it's taken quite a few hours each semester, and I've also taken some summer classes as well."

According to Boone and Stelk, the field of study a student chooses can make a big difference in how long his or her college career lasts. Stelk is majoring in food science.

"There's only a couple students that I know of who showed up when I did who are going to go four and a half years, but in food science most people get through in about four years," he said.

UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman agreed that a student's major plays a part in how long college takes. For example, engineering and education are majors he said are difficult to complete in four years.

"If you are in (the) engineering college, you can't expect to graduate in four years, no matter what you do," he said. "We have a very large education college, and for students that are going into teaching, the student-teaching semester makes it very difficult to make it through in four years."

Perlman also said other college experiences can add to the length.

"We're trying to encourage more and more of our students to spend a semester abroad, which would make it unlikely that they would graduate in four years," he said. "We are encouraging more of our students to do an internship program sometime during their collegiate careers, which makes it less likely that they will graduate in four years."

In this fall's State of the University address, Perlman said the Lincoln campus should make shortening the time needed for students to get degrees a top priority.

In 2009, UNL's four-year graduation rate was 25 percent. That's in the middle of the pack for Nebraska colleges and universities. But the six-year rate is 64 percent. That's at the top, essentially the same as three other Nebraska schools. But Perlman doesn't pay much attention to the four-year graduation rate. He says the six-year rate is what higher education uses to compare institutions. The average six-year graduation rate for Nebraska schools is 55 percent, essentially the same as the national average.

The three Nebraska state colleges, Chadron State, Peru State and Wayne State, have a six-year graduation rate of 43 percent. Chancellor of the system, Stan Carpenter, said that compares to 37 percent nationally for similar, open-admissions institutions. He said the three Nebraska schools have a "success rate" of 90 percent: that number includes students who get a degree after the six-year time frame and those who transfer but still get a degree eventually from another institution. Carpenter said he feels that's a better measure in some ways, for schools like the three state colleges since their enrollment has a high number of non-traditional students.

Another priority is student retention. UNL's first year-student retention rate in 2009 was 84 percent. The Big Ten average is 91 percent.

Retention can play an important role in graduation success, and UNL is turning to technology to help.

"We are implementing a new software package that's designed to let us predict what students are most likely to be at risk of dropping out, and allows us to stay more engaged with those students over the course of their academic careers and give advisors better information about their progress," Perlman said. "We'll be in a better position that way and we are also looking at how programming at the university can be adjusted to make sure that students are more engaged with the university and more likely to be successful."

There's a lot of competition among colleges and universities for students. In Fremont, Midland University's new president Ben Sasse said students should graduate in four years. He said it can be done by getting students on track early.

"I think it's great for students to have a disciplined period for exploration," he said, but only in way so that they haven't accumulated essentially meaningless classes by the time they reach their third or fourth semester.

"We've built a new Student Advisory Center, so students can be in exploration in a disciplined way and make a knowledgeable and informed choice by the fall of their sophomore year about what they want to major in," he said.

Midland is so sure it can happen, it's putting a four year-graduation guarantee in place beginning with the 2012 fall semester. To qualify, Midland students must do four things: declare a major by sophomore year; take and pass classes the major requires; take a typical class load; and stay in good disciplinary and financial standing.

Sasse said most Nebraska institutions have good qualities, but one like Midland has the flexibility to offer students a four-year degree that takes just that long.

"If for any reason, any of those students could not get in any of their classes it's on Midland from then on," he said. "All tuition and fees beyond that 8th semester would be on us, and I think once we make that concrete commitment, it starts to sink in to people, for prospective students, that an institution like this really is built around the teaching mission."

Doane College in Crete has had a four-year graduation guarantee in place since 1995. It currently has the highest four-year graduation rate of all Nebraska schools at 60 percent. That number has ranged from about 50 to 62 percent since the four-year guarantee was introduced. Doane will pay for two additional semesters if a student in the program hasn't graduated in four years.

The University of Nebraska Board of Regents approved a four-year guarantee of its own in 2002. It doesn't include picking up tuition after four years. NU's guarantee focuses on course availability or suitable alternatives for students. Regents approved it to help keep college affordable for those who want to complete a degree as quickly as possible.

The Board took an additional step to do that last month when it approved scaling back the number of credit hours most degrees should require for graduation. Perlman said that's a national trend.

"All education is good, but at some point one has to draw a border around a bachelor's degree. And 120 hours was long the standard, and I think it can still be the standard."

That's how many Taylor Stelk will have with his food science degree.

"I think that's enough for what I'm studying right now," he said. "I think it leads well into a graduate degree if you wanted to do that."

Kate Boone thinks fewer credit hours might make more students think about quality rather than quantity when it comes to the classes they take.

"I think it's a good thing, and it kind of forces people to think more about their future," she said. "Finding something you are passionate about and want to go after it, then you'll absorb the knowledge more and be able to apply it."

Alexa Armstrong's days of walking past the Heuermann clock are winding down.

"Right now I'm hopefully graduating in four years, so it's kind of exciting," she said.

Armstrong, from Lincoln, will graduate in four years, but only because the clock started on her college career before arriving on campus, earning college credit in high school.

"It would have been a lot more difficult," she said. "I had 18 credit hours before I came to college. So I think I would have gone for more than four years if not for that."

The typical college semester is 15 credit hours. Armstrong is scheduled to graduate in May with degrees in environmental studies and fisheries and wildlife.

"My plan was to try and get it done in four years, but it's hard because college is fun, and you want it to last a while."

Armstrong's experience shows no matter how much administrators and students themselves may want to have a four-year college career, it still can be a challenge.

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