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College now taking some 5, 6 years

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Like many college freshmen, James Bond expected to graduate from University of Maryland in four years.

But then he decided to take on a double major, studying government and journalism. To do it in four years, he would have needed 17 or 18 credits a semester instead of the typical 12 to 15. He worried his grades would suffer, hurting his chances when he applies to law schools.

Now he is in his fifth year. And Bond - whose less-frantic schedule gives him time to serve as president of the student body, work at Student Legal Aid and take upper-level Spanish classes, among other activities - doesn't mind at all.

"I'm getting so much more out of the college experience," said Bond, 22, of Silver Spring, who is among the growing number of college students nationwide who, out of choice or necessity, are extending their stay on campuses beyond the traditional four years.

Reasons for that change include outside responsibilities, such as families and jobs, difficulty getting required courses, and complex majors that would require heavy course loads over a four-year college career.

Of all freshmen entering Maryland's public four-year schools in 1995, only 29.9 percent graduated in four years, according to Michael Keller, director of policy analysis and research for the Maryland Higher Education Commission. That's the best it's been since the commission began keeping track in 1978.

National statistics aren't any better. According to the Consortium for Student Retention Data, the four-year graduation rate is 27 percent for public institutions and 44 percent for private ones.

The statistics are based on a nationwide study of 294 schools.

"Degree completion requires more than four years for most students," notes the consortium Web site, www.occe.ou.edu/csrde/.

The consortium found that four-year graduation rates are higher in private institutions than in public ones. A four-year college career is so unusual that U.S. News & World Report uses a six-year standard when calculating graduation rates for its annual ranking of American colleges.

Yet high school students persist in assuming they'll graduate from college after four years, said John Offerman, head of the guidance department at Towson High School.

"We try to make them realize ... their plans have to stay flexible," he said. "Education is a lifelong event."

The ramifications are serious. Students who take longer to graduate will probably pay more tuition, especially because scholarship money tends to dry up after four years.

Institutions don't like it, either.

"The issue for the university is, our opportunity to educate students is diminished when we have large numbers who are moving through slowly," said Bill Spann, assistant vice president for institutional research and planning for University of Maryland, College Park.

"If we have these full-time enrollments sitting there and the students aren't moving through effectively in four years or five, the amount of students we can move through is reduced. That's really a cost to the state and to us in terms of our ability to serve others."

In 1996, the Maryland Higher Education Commission studied graduation rates and identified several reasons why students take longer than four years to graduate.

The list included family responsibilities, extracurricular activities, lack of maturity or motivation for the student, lack of available courses and inadequate advising from school counselors.

Students who transfer, change majors or decide to graduate with two majors often need an extra year or two.

"The graying of higher education has been an important variable," Keller said. "The traditional college student today is really the nontraditional student. The average age of Maryland college students on our four-year campuses is about 25."

Older students are more likely to have home duties, jobs and other impediments to full-time study, he said.

Difficult programs and the lack of available courses can be serious issues. Micah Coleman, for example, plans to take five years to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree from University of Maryland, College Park.

"Sometime during my first year, I made the decision that I was going to make it a five-year commitment," said Coleman, in his fourth year. "It was still doable in four years, but I made the decision I didn't want to put myself through that."

The extra year gives him more time for extracurricular activities, including serving as president of his fraternity last year and serving on the university president's Student Advisory Council, he said.

Besides, he said, most mechanical engineering majors take more than four years to graduate.

The numbers bear him out. Of students entering the program in 1993, only 9.9 percent graduated in four years, Spann said.

For University of Maryland as a whole, 33.3 percent of students entering in fall 1993 graduated four years later, he said.

Spann recalled a campus discussion about four-year graduation rates.

"One of the members [of the panel] was a mechanical engineering professor," Spann said. "His point was that students ... are very focused on the grades. They're also focused on job experience, both because they need the money to pay for their education and also because they think they'll be stronger in the marketplace once they have their degree. Consequently, his feeling was most students were not that intent on graduating in four years."

The commission's 1996 report on graduation rates included a recommendation for colleges to provide a "four-year graduation guarantee," an arrangement used by institutions including University of Iowa and Indiana University.

It would establish a contract between a student and the institution. If the student were to commit to the necessary courses, the school would provide the appropriate classes and both academic and financial advising. Institutions in Maryland never followed up on that suggestion, Keller said.

Spann said such a guarantee was not seriously considered by University of Maryland.

Spann said critics of that recommendation "most often felt many students who start as freshmen are not really focused on what they want to do, and this kind of guarantee puts undue pressure on a student to pick a major that may not be an appropriate major. It doesn't allow a student to do some exploration."

Spann put the responsibility on students. He said 98 percent of freshmen say they'll attend full time and graduate in four years, but their actions don't bear that out.

"They say their intent is full time, but I think they actually perceive 'full time' as something other than 30 credits a year. The bulk of students - about 60 percent - are taking less than the full-time rate."

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