How to get out in four years

Super senioritis doesn’t have to be a chronic condition

As a freshman, you’re just getting started. But graduation has a way of sneaking up on a student.

You think you’re right on track, taking the right number of credits, only to find at the last minute that while you have enough credits, you had the wrong classes. Or the one class you need to graduate isn’t offered during your remaining semester. Maybe, if you’re lucky, it’s not on your dime. Then your poor parents (or your mounting student loans) are footing yet another $10,000-$30,000 that year for your education and living expenses—and you’re 22 years old. You can vote, you can drink—but you still need a rather large allowance when you could be getting a paycheck.

An informal survey of some RN&R writers found that nearly none of them, myself included, graduated in four years. I took four-and-a-half years because I experimented with too many minors.

Other responses included: “I found it impossible, but that’s because I’m lazy and only took 12 credits a semester and wanted to spend a few months running around Europe.” And this: “The near exclusive problem, with my college experience has been money. I’ve had to creatively bounce checks, manage credit card debt, and mooch from people I don’t like. I’ve also worked as much as possible and still been broke all the time. The upside is that I almost pulled the four-year thing off and get to more or less be lazy for year five.”

We’re hardly alone. Only 37 percent of university students graduate in four years in this country. For UNR, the numbers are even lower. According to the U.S. Department of Education, just 16 percent of freshman entering UNR in 1999 graduated in four years; 43 percent graduated in five, and 52 percent were out the door by year six. (We know the math doesn’t work out, but that’s what the Education Department said. Take a statistics course, maybe then you’ll understand.)

Leisure learning

Why should you care? College is pretty fun, for the most part. Perhaps you’re soul searching, or you’ve discovered a previously unknown desire to be both an engineer and a philosophy major, requiring extra time. Maybe you have to work 20 or more hours a week, which leaves little time for taking 16 credits of classes. (Just be sure it’s to pay for your life and not your brand new Audi).

Those are valid reasons, but there are good reasons for a timely departure, too.

Here’s a scenario. You are a college grad about to have your first, post-grad job interview.

“Soooo, you went to UNR,” you’re prospective new boss says.

“That’s right.”

“Ooh, and it says here you started there in 2001. Hmmm, so that means you were there for … six years?”

“I really liked it there.”

“Interesting. Well, it was nice meeting you. Buh-bye.”

Then there’s economics. College isn’t cheap. Each credit at UNR costs $120.75, not including the mandatory fees for books, health center, etc. There’s also the cost of supporting your academic self for each semester you’re still in school, which will run in the many thousands of dollars—and this without a full-time job. Literature from the academic advisor’s office says an extra year in school can cost a student about $28,000 in foregone earnings and tuition increases.

“With a college degree, graduates have the opportunity to earn significantly more than someone without the degree,” says UNR president Milton Glick. “Delaying completion of the degree means delaying higher earning power, as well.”

President Glick has made increasing graduation rates a priority. It’s good for the student, he says, but it’s also good for the school. Nationally, universities are judged by their graduation rates. A 16 percent graduation rate, for example, brings down the value of your degree.

Space limitations at the university could also be impacted by leisurely graduates.

“If students don’t get out, there’s not space for new students to get in,” says director of the Academic Advising Center Nancy Markee.

While Glick says UNR hasn’t run into this problem, other universities in the nation have experienced it.

Before Markee arrived to work at UNR 21 years ago, she advised students in California. She says that crowding at some schools there has impacted incoming students. A student may want to declare a certain major only to be told, “we’re full.” Markee says that, anecdotally, some UNR students have told her they’re here because they couldn’t get into a California school.

“I think we’re fighting a culture here where a lot of students haven’t been graduating in four years,” says Markee.

Two years ago, the university began to require that incoming freshmen meet with an adviser. Mandatory advising for second semester freshmen begins this fall.

“We’re hoping this will set the stage that advising is important,” says Markee.

Get on with it

Check out the university’s guide “Achieving the Dream: How to Graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno in Four Years.” It outlines a four-year checklist that includes everything from arranging for free tutoring to meeting with Career Development staff.

If you do nothing else to ensure a timely departure, do this:

• Take 16 credits, on average, each semester. Most majors require 128 credits: Do the math.

• Make sure you’re taking the right classes. Meet with your academic advisor at least once a semester to avoid surprises.

• Go to class.

The university also makes these suggestions:

• Make a list of deadlines, and meet them.

• If your ACT/SAT scores aren’t high enough for placement in English and math courses, take placement exams ( or (#english)

• Map out potential future course schedules. Many department Web sites post what courses are expected to be offered for the upcoming couple semesters, although changes are always possible.

• Enroll in a Freshman Year Exper-ience class to help you with skills that will get you through school.

• Be aware of add, drop and change deadlines on the class schedule.

• Take care of financial aid and scholarship applications

You can look up your remaining requirements at any time, on any computer by using the Degree Audit Report (DARS). Just connect to the university’s ePAWS site ( DARS tells you every course you’ve completed, what you still need to take and GPA requirements for those classes. If something looks amiss—you’re transfer credits aren’t listed, for example—you can raise the issue with your advisor rather than have a last-minute graduation headache.

“There’s really no excuse for them not to know where they stand,” says Markee.

The university catalog—a hefty tome offered online, as a CD, and at the advisors’ office in hard copy—gives suggested four-year plans according to major. Markee says she’d be happy to copy for students any pages in the catalog they need.

Most freshmen enter college undecided on a major. That’s OK. Healthy, even. As long as your academic advisor knows what majors you’re considering, they can help keep you on track, says Markee.

But to go undecided for too long can also delay students from graduating. Once you hit 45 credits, the university puts a hold on registration until you meet with an advisor. This serves as a reminder to declare a major, or at least meet with career counseling if the future still has a mud-like consistency.

“Changing majors while in college is the No. 1 reason students don’t graduate in four years,” says Brenda Watkins, vice president of College Partnership Inc.

Markee suggests that students get involved in clubs and organizations early on to help them find strengths, likes and dislikes they may not know they have. This kind of out-of-the-classroom experience not only helps students enjoy college more, it may also help them decide a career path.

Millennium scholars have a unique obstacle to getting out in four years. Students need 16 credits per semester to graduate on time, but the scholarship only pays for 12 each semester. The way around that is to take the remaining four credits in summer school, “wintermester“ or mini-term. The only catch is, unlike during regular sessions, the Millennium scholar pays those special session costs upfront and is reimbursed later. Not everyone can afford that.

While there are the got-it-together, overachievers of the world, very few people have it all figured out. If you’re lucky, you’ll never stop being curious about other careers, other ways of life, and the sometimes overwhelming number of directions yours can take. That doesn’t mean you have to get a degree in all of them. There’s something to be said for just getting it—and getting on with it.