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Traditional Four-Year College Degrees are the Exception, not the Rule

You must read this article by Neil Swidley in  the Boston Globe.  Mr. Swidley  pulls together some great information that shatters the myth of the four year college degree.

Fact:  Census data from 2005 indicate that only 28% of Americans have obtained a Bachelors degree.

Fact:  Only about 10% of Americans take the “traditional path” of completing their Bachelors degree in 4 years.

Fact:  At private four-year colleges, the percentage of students graduating in four years is, on average, 54%.  Among our public institutions, the four-year graduation rate is 32%.

The selective, elite colleges have better four-year graduations rates.  But if you compare the total number of students in the Ivy League (about 60,000) to the number of undergraduates at just one of our largest institutions (40,000 at Ohio State University, for example), or with the 6.6 million students enrolled in our community colleges across the country, you can start to see the disparity between those few how pursue the “traditional” four-year path and the majority who take five, six, or more years to complete their Bachelor’s degree.

Mr. Swidley’s main point is that the general public does not understand that “swirling” (the term enrollment managers use to describe the the dynamic of students of moving in and out and around the higher education system) is the norm in higher education, and that policy makers in higher education tend to create systems (e.g., rules pertaining to the transfer of credits from one university to another) that enshrine the myth and deny the reality:  swirlers are the vast majority of the people in our higher education system.

Parents and students should read this article.  Before you embark on a higher education plan, you need to consider that it is more likely that you complete in five or six years or more, then you need to factor that likelihood into your plans.

Think about the following:

1.  Will you attend a public university?  If so, study the four and six-year graduation rates at your school, and give yourself permission to consider taking longer to complete your degree. Don’t beat yourself up if you find it hard to finish in four years–you’re in good company!

2.  Do you know what you will major in?  If not–and if you will attend a large, state university–keep in mind that you are perhaps most at risk of having to take a 5th or 6th year to complete your degree, as it is often difficult to satisfy credit requirements if you do not plan far enough ahead.  Better still, try to narrow your choices early:  the impact of changing your major from political science to economics will be less than if you switch from engineering to art history.

3.  If you think you may take 5 or 6 years to complete, how will you pay for the degree?  Tuition will likely increase each year, and usually credits are cheaper if you enroll full-time than if you enroll part-time.  So it may make more sense to take a full year off, get a decent job, save money, and then return to school full-time.

4.  If you do take some time off between matriculation and graduation, what will you do?  What sort of job will you get?  Pursue an internship or co-op program or apprenticeship?  Perhaps you might join Americorps or spend some time abroad learning a new language.  Don’t just flounder around–make the time off part of your overall educational plan.

5.  If you anticipate that money will be the primary obstacle to completing your degree, consider enrolling in a two-year community college and take courses that your state goverment guarantees can be transferred to your flagship state university.

Both policy makers and the general public need to abandon the myth of the four-year college degree.  It is not the norm–it is the exception.

Students–and their parents–need to build their educational expectations and plans around the norm.  Instead of feeling like failures or otherwise inadequate learners, perhaps we need a new slogan to rally the “silent majority” of students in higher education.

“Swirlers Are Swell”.

“Two, Four, Six, Eight — It Takes a While to Graduate”

“College:  I Did It MY WAY!”

Any other catchy slogans you can think of?  Add them in the comments below–we’ll print up T-Shirts!


Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


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Comments

  1. Mark,
    GREAT points! I love how you broke it down and made it easy for parents and their teens to see the bigger picture. You made some excellent points!

  2. I like your points and agree that it is not how fast you graduate that matters. The main point is infact to just get it done . Thanks for your great thoughts to the world.

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