EL PASO – When Toni Johnson graduated from high school in Coronado, California, in 2008 she was optimistic that finishing college was going to take four years and she prepared herself for a 2012 graduation.
However, like many other students who are juggling jobs, families or unexpected circumstances, she found out that it often takes much longer than four years to get that college diploma. Although she enrolled at San Diego City College, a community college near her home, immediately after completing high school, she struggled academically and had to drop out for one semester before resuming her studies.
“Every situation is different and I feel like the era of the four year degree is done,” said Johnson, 22, who is now at San Diego Mesa College studying Animal Health Technology. “I never had a solid idea of what I wanted to do; it took me a while to find my niche.”
Johnson recalls the uneasiness she felt at times about having to delay graduation. Pressure from friends and family at times left her slightly insecure. “I feel weird that a lot of my friends have already graduated and here I am, still at community.”
Johnson, like many others, found that a four-year university degree no longer takes just four years. According to the U.S. Department of Education, recent findings show that only 36 percent of students who attend a four-year university graduate within that time. On average students attend college for six or seven years before graduating.
Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, with a 91.3 percent four-year graduation rate, was number one in U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top 10 schools with the most students graduating in four years. Yale University in Connecticut was ranked tenth with 88.8 percent.
The University of Texas at El Paso ranks numerically low on their four-year graduation rates. According to UT System annual research of all the schools, UTEP had the lowest four-year graduation rate with just 3.8 percent of students graduating in four years during the years 1997-2001. UT Austin had the highest four-year graduation with an average of 43 percent of students graduating within four years. According to the same study, UTEP students attended an average of 11 fulltime semesters (excluding summer semesters) or four and a half years to graduate. For UTEP students majoring in arts and architecture, it took them 12 semesters to graduate, or about five years.
Despite its low ranking in the four-year graduation rate, UTEP has seen much improvement. The four-year graduation rate jumped up three percent from the years of 1997-1999. The UT System expects UTEP to have a 20 percent four-year graduation rate by the year 2015.
Several factors push students to take longer to graduate. Rising tuition costs force some to take fewer classes per semester. “Many people have to work in order to cope with rising living and school expenses,” said Johnson. “When people have to work full time in order to pay bills they don’t get the adequate studying time they need to pass their classes or they wind up taking a smaller class load each semester. That was another problem.”
In an article in the personal finance section of Fox Business, Tom Taylor offers some advice to students who wish to graduate within four years. Taylor, dean at Wittenberg University, says that graduating within four years can be done if students follow five essential steps.
He says student’s need to:
- Find a major early.
- Do not take Fridays/Mondays off.
- Reach out to advisors for help with scheduling.
- Do not transfer without planning ahead.
- Do take advantage of time off, especially summer sessions to take extra classes.
While these steps sound ideal, many other delaying factors come into play. Other challenges to graduating on time include personal and family matters, unexpected occurrences and changing degree plans.
Shelly Bernal, 30, who lives in El Paso, knows this all too well. Bernal struggled to balance two jobs, school and caring for her daughter Jade, currently in middle school. Bernal got minimal sleep when she worked full-time during the day and graveyard shifts at a busy pancake house. School took a backseat to life’s daily dilemmas. Despite several factors, Bernal graduated from the University of Phoenix in 2008 with a degree in finance and plans to go back to college to earn her master’s degree.
But all students don’t view prolonging the graduation process as a bad thing. Maryanna D’Amico, 23, studies Graphic Design and Marketing at California State University, San Bernardino. She expects to graduate after spending the last five years in college. After she graduated high school in 2007, she attended Southwestern Community College where she spent the next three years before attending UCSB.
“I did a lot of soul searching,” she said. D’Amico attributes much of her happiness due to prolonging graduation. She is currently busy working on her portfolio and just finished two internships this past summer. Prolonging her graduation date enabled her to grow and find her true passion.
“I feel safe. A lot of people when they graduate don’t know what to do with their life so they go to graduate school, just to be back in school,” D’Amico said.
Johnson does not dwell on the past. Instead she looks forward to a brighter future and remains optimistic that opportunities will come her way. “It all worked out. It might have taken a while but it worked out for the better,” she said.