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.

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