At universities across the country, super-seniors make up a significant percentage of undergraduate students. Photo from The Retriever archives.
Looking up information on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the average student would be forgiven for assuming most undergraduates will receive their degrees in four years. A quick Google search for “UMBC undergraduate graduation rate” returns 61.1% in the first result — bolded. Without some knowledge of the metrics going into this figure, this can make a student who actually part of the majority feel left behind.
“It is kind of weird, because you see your best friend graduate and obviously we started at the same time,” remarks one gender and women’s studies major who asked to remain anonymous. They explain themselves as “sort of a junior,” though they transferred to UMBC from another, undisclosed college after being denied from its social work program. “My little sister will probably graduate before me… it used to bother me, but I’m okay with it now,” they say. “Most of my friends are also transfers.”
Like many other institutions of higher education, UMBC calculates its graduation rate by the 150% rule: if it is a four-year degree, the graduation rate is based on the percent receiving it in six years, and students pursuing master’s degrees typically tracked for two years are allotted three. Nationwide, the number of students shown to complete college “on time” — whether with an associate’s, bachelor’s, or beyond — consistently trails far behind the numbers of those that do not. The four-year graduation statistic for undergrads at non-flagship universities hovers around 19%, according to Complete College America. This can be attributed to anything from poor record-keeping, to part-time attendance, to life changes and financial strain and the experience of each student being unique.
“I used to attend college in Oklahoma,” shares Brittany Stafford, “but I have a twin sister, and my parents could only afford school for one of us. I said, ‘Okay, give it to her.’” Two community colleges and three years at UMBC later — with majors in both Asian studies and linguistics, and either a full-time job or two part-time jobs at all times — Stafford was finally able to graduate in the spring of 2018. “My debt is somewhere around $62,000 by now. The emails about paying it back just started coming in, but I’m trying to work with them about lowering the payments.”
Her name, she clarifies, is the only one on the loan paperwork. “It was definitely hard to get up, go to class, take notes, go to work and get everything done,” she says. Even without such a heavy schedule, others are finding they are unable to contend with just the usual 15-credit course load, leading to failing grades and expensive retakes as they try to keep up.
Parents seem to be the primary pushers for on-time graduation, in line with the fact that around 41% of undergraduate students are funded by family members, as reported by Sallie Mae. Another 31% can anticipate covering their expenses through grants and scholarships —which typically stipulate a minimum grade point average and degree of enrollment — with just under a third of students expected to foot the bill themselves.
An extra year can tack on an additional $25,654 in tuition for an out-of-state UMBC undergraduate, which is then often ineligible for government assistance. This can cause tension at home when students feel they need a break.
“I didn’t tell my parents that I withdrew from one of my classes this semester, because I didn’t want to burden them. …I told them it switched to being an online class [in order to explain staying home],” confides a media and communications studies major in what she hopes to be her final year. The decision was not an easy one, and she says she has to stop herself from viewing it as a failure. She maintains it was the right choice for her, though she too requested anonymity in this article.
“My parents were not cool with it at first, but now they’re just happy I’m sticking with it,” says the aforementioned gender and women’s studies junior, after relating the struggle of taking a semester off to handle mental health problems before returning.
For many students — in fact, for the majority — the path to university graduation is more winding than popular media would have them believe. Many students will find they need an extra semester or two, if not an entirely new school or major, to have a successful higher education experience. College is challenging, and forward movement is not uniform. Positive progress, at any rate, is uniformly respectable.