A four-year degree?

During my college years in the ’70s, we made a point of finishing on time. In fact, a Bachelor degree was often referred to as a “four-year degree.”

Only a slacker would drag things out much longer, eliciting the explanation that “he crammed four years of college into seven years.”

Even going to summer school could cause whispers about failing or dropping a tough class, or lazily taking less than a full load.

During the ’80s, while I was doing campus ministry, things really changed. Completing a degree in four years sans summers became rarer. Dropping classes — for whatever reason — became routine.

Graduation dates became goals or estimates, not deadlines. But not all of this shift had to do with students.

Some academic degrees simply could not be completed in the “normal” four-year undergraduate period. And the scheduling of required classes, as well as internships or co-ops, could mess with the completion dates too.

The primary factor for my own commitment to completing my degree “on time” had to do with money. Paying for an additional term was out of the question.

So I was intrigued by a press release received yesterday in which Mercer University announced a “four-year graduation guarantee.” It’s stated purpose is to help more undergraduates finish on time, therefore reducing costs to them and their families.

“Trends over the past decade indicate that college students are increasingly failing to graduate within four years,” the release noted. “Nationally, the average time from matriculation to graduation now exceeds five years, with only 37 percent of students graduating in four years.”

Wow. Just over one-third of undergraduate students finish in four years? I can’t believe the shift is that great.

Imagine the additional cost of an extended undergraduate degree with tuition, books, housing and everything added in. Plus the person does not get to graduate school or the work force as soon as before.

Mercer’s vice president for enrollment management, Brian Dalton, said: “The Mercer Four-Year Pledge … is designed to encourage students to be intentional and responsible in successfully pursuing an undergraduate degree within four years of matriculation — and it encourages the University to be a responsible partner in working with students to achieve this desired outcome.”

Specifically, the “pledge” states that: “Beginning with the freshman class of 2009, students who do their work, pass their classes, and follow the advice of faculty advisers will graduate within four years.”

If these conditions are met, yet more time is required, the university will provide the additional required class(es) at no cost to the student.

Mercer claims to be just “one of only a handful of universities in the country to offer such a guarantee.” To make it work, new technology is being employed to better monitor the student’s progress toward graduation.

That’s interesting since I don’t recall any significant technology at play in our academic journeys of the ’70s. We simply charted our course — with the help of a catalog and a faculty adviser — and ran to the end.

However, there is nothing magic about the time frame for completing undergraduate education. But it will be interesting to see if such “guarantees” expand and if a shift occurs — leading to four-year degrees once again being completed in four years.


  1. John,

    There are major shifts in undergraduate education that contribute to the increase in “time to degree”.

    First, there is more access to higher education and many who enroll today would have never enrolled 20 or thirty years ago. These students are often academically underprepared for the college experience and persistence to degree completion is often challenged by the lack of academic skills. We saw this in the aftermath of Georgia’s Hope Scholarship Program that promised anyone access and support based upon a high school gpa. Unfortunately, gpa’s are not at all uniform across the state and local school systems vary in how they prepare students for college-level work. High School gpa is not a great basis alone for granting financial aid.

    Second, the cost of higher education has far out run increases in the cost of living and earnings over the same period of time. This occurs at the same time that public support for grant programs (like Pell) have been dramatically reduced in favor of private loans to cover the cost of education. For many students, work outside the classroom become essential to meeting the cost involved, and it is often work that has little sympathy for students as students.

    Public policy over the past 30 years has tended to see higher education as a private good and placed much of the burden for securing and paying for education on the individual. Only now are we beginning to hear from some quarters a repudiation of the idea of private good. An educated people is a public good and is in our best interest as a nation. Our ability to compete in the world and our security as a nation are directly related to our educational attainment and achievement.

    Taking more than 4 years may be necessary for some given the constraints on resources, and Mercer’s intentional support for insuring student success is to be commended. But Mercer can’t do this alone. We simply must recognize that education is public good, and our future depends on our support for it.

    BTW: I recommend a very insightful book by Claudia Golden and Lawrence Katz (two economist) entitled, The Race Between Technology and Education. The book traces the changes that have occurred in the past 30 years in American education and how we might address the future. Nick Kristof of the NY Times has referred to this study recently in his columns.

  2. Thanks for the insights, Scott. Shows I’ve been away from campus life for about 15 years now.

  3. I walked the commencement aisle at Mercer a decade before this was announced, yet I had a 4 year guarantee. I was guaranteed that after 4 years my scholarships would run out, the state would stop paying their portion, and I’d have to foot the bill myself.

    It’s amazing how that motivation got me to finish in four years.

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