The Imperfect Importance of “Finish in 4”

My university, William Paterson, struggles with a problem shared by many public state universities, especially those that serve a student population strong on first generation students, whose economic situation requires that they work a great many hours while attending school, and who may need additional developmental education to succeed in college courses.

Our problem? We want (and need to a large extent) our students to take full course loads (15 credits each semester), take these 15 credits every semester for 8 semesters, and then graduate with 120 credits and their degree in four years. We also need to balance this desire (and necessity) with the needs of our students to self-fund much of their education (and possibly also contribute to family expenses) and to meet family and other needs while going to school.

A problem.

First, a reminder why we as a university want and need students to finish in 4:

  • The longer a student stays in school, the greater the likelihood that student doesn’t ever finish
  • Each year in school is another year of paying tuition, taking out more loans and delaying the move from student to full-time employment–reducing a student’s overall financial health for years
  • State and federal governments are continuing to increase the pressure on all schools–but especially public schools–to improve their graduation rates
  • Publications that rate and rank schools weigh four-year graduation rates in their calculations
  • Parents and students look at the our-year graduation rate in making decisions about which schools to attend

In one sense, this is (or appears to be) an easy decision: Economically (at least in the long-term) and personally, finishing a bachelor’s degree in four years is the best route. The benefits are clear.

Of course it is not that simple. Students (always but more so as the share of educational cost covered by tuition continues to  rise) look not only at the long term but at the short-term and immediate needs. Finish in 4 sometimes looks more difficult when it conflicts with pay the rent by Tuesday. Students also, as they always have, sometimes change their minds–one may start out with a plan to become the world’s greatest accountant only to discover that graphic design is really where their heart and mind is. Students sometimes just really want to learn more–and that’s hard to resist as a teacher.

And life just gets in the way from time to time.

So back to the title: The Imperfect Importance of Finish in 4. Even with all the caveats above, completion of the bachelor’s degree in four years is extremely important. It is vital, therefore, that universities do all they can do to make this possible. We may not be able to resolve a crisis in a family and our financial aid support probably can’t cover all the expenses for every student.

But we can identify and eliminate needless barriers to timely completion. We can provide academic advising so that students can select the major that they really want to complete. We can provide academic support so that students can learn and succeed in their classes. We can set our course schedules and craft our curriculum so that students can get the courses they need in a sequence that makes sense and at times that work best for students–nor just for university employees.

Imperfect? Yes. But still vitally important.



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