No more four-year norm

Kaitlyn Keith is finally an alumna.

In December she fulfilled her dream of bouncing across the stage dressed in black and gold and grabbing that piece of paper that says she made it. She could finally step off of the commencement stage and into the next, more metaphorical stage of her life.

Keith has been looking forward to this moment for a long time. For 7.5 years, to be specific.

She earned a Bachelor of Music in piano performance, a degree that falls under the four-year plan category on OU’s website. It took her much longer than those four years to acquire it.

While the time it took Keith to get her four-year degree is lengthy, it’s not unusual. The Office of Institutional Research and Assessment at Oakland University (OIRA) reported that only 18.9 percent of OU graduates in 2010 graduated in four years.

In 2009, 15.8 percent graduated in four years and 36.1 percent in five years. The average of those who graduated in six years since 2000 stayed at roughly 43 percent – the report on six-year graduates ends at 2008.

While this data only reflects on OU, the implications go far beyond this single school.

According to research done for recent CNN documentary “Ivory Tower,” 68 percent of U.S. students at public universities failed to graduate in four years, as of 2012. Forty-four percent failed to graduate in six years.

The trend is evidenced around the country, with universities and colleges across the nation displaying the same results and speculations, marking these long graduation times as a steadily growing and seemingly unstoppable trend.

Exploring the causes

Keith acquired her associate’s degree at a community college and then attended Michigan State University for another two years. She transferred to OU in September 2011, drawn to it by her friends.

It didn’t take long to discover that even though she had earned a hefty number of credits, graduation would take a while. Due to the structure of OU’s music program, when Keith failed one class, she could not continue with many others. There were many challenges and no room for mistakes.

Andrew Clissold, computer science major, started in the music program as well.

He came straight to OU from high school and began as a music major in fall 2010. After his first year he realized it wasn’t for him and made the “180 flip” to another passion – programming.

“It was weird slowly shifting worlds from music to programming,” Clissold said. “I kind of knew what I was getting into when I changed.”

It’s been four years and Clissold has accomplished more than he was expecting. He was actually set to graduate in April, but recently decided to push everything back a semester in order to complete an internship in Texas with IBM for three months.

“I just came across an awesome opportunity that would be worth it,” Clissold said.

While it will now take him 5.5 years to graduate, Clissold said he feels lucky that everything worked out the way it did.

Not everyone’s experiences are the same when switching careers and majors, but many students do experience this indecision.

Donald Asher, career and higher education writer and speaker, published his own take in list form in 2010: “6 Reasons College Students Don’t Graduate in 4 Years.” The third reason on his list is that students change their majors too much, such as Clissold. The fourth reason is that students go to too many schools and lose credits while transferring, such as Keith.

Others cite a lack of motivation on the students’ parts, a struggle to balance class and work to pay for school, time taken off for internships or co-ops, and a difficulty in meeting school requirements.

Whatever the reasons and responses for these graduation rates, the rates are there and aren’t going away. The topic has been covered as a trend by a variety of universities, organizations and media outlets.

It’s a trend – is it a problem?

“Is there a clear winner for earning a degree in four years versus earning it in five?”

This is the question posed by writer Jon Fortenbury at the end of his USA Today article, “Pushing to graduate in 4 years: Smart move?”

Taylor Boddy, elementary education major, doesn’t necessarily think long graduation times are a bad thing.

Boddy is expecting to receive her degree in April 2016, six years after her high school graduation. Like Keith, she started at a community college. She said she got pushed back a year before she even reached OU, and that her program takes a longer time than others since it requires more field placements and observation assignments.

So far, Boddy said she thinks she’s going to have more than five field placements. The requirements are a little confusing to her still, but she doesn’t resent them.

“I think that the amount is good because I think the more experience, the better,” Boddy said. “That way I can get more experience in the classroom and get more hours… it’s really helpful.”

Boddy said it will be sad to watch her fellow education friends leave upon their graduations, and while she does often wish she could walk the stage sooner, she’s enjoying her classes and doesn’t feel too concerned about taking so long.

“I’m getting more experience and I’m able to get my name out there more and (the classes and placements will) help get me a job more down the line,” Boddy said.

Keith has watched many friends come and go as well. She has had her share of depression, stress, lack of funds and failures, and missed out on years of a full-time job and salary.

It doesn’t matter. She’s finally done and she said she wouldn’t think twice about doing it again. She’s been counting down the days and plans to continue supporting her alma mater as one of its most spirited alumni.

“Well everyone… I made it,” she wrote in an article that was published in the Nov. 19 issue of the Oakland Post. “Made it to the end of my degree and the end to some of the best seven and a half years of my life.”