By John P. Kennedy, Contributing Writer
A sudden hesitation, a long breath, and a look of remorse filled the tiny, cluttered office with a dreadful discomfort.
My academic advisor of four years adjusted her round-framed glasses, staring gravely at her computer screen, then glanced towards me, then back to the screen.
“You are missing nine credits,” she states.
In an instant, my dreams of crossing the graduation stage and my plans for life after college were put on hold.
This meant another semester’s worth of tuition and fees and an extra six months before I could enter the real world as a Bachelor of the Arts.
Blitzed first by confusion and second by regrets, I wrestled with some initial questions: How could this happen? Why am I just finding out now? And, of course, who is to blame?
I left the office knowing that, in the fall, I’d return to campus yet again while my friends and former classmates would be accepting job offers and looking at apartments.
My experience is not uncommon at UMass Dartmouth or any other university in the United States. The longtime standard of a four-year bachelor’s program has become a romantic fantasy for the vast majority, many of whom end up becoming “super-seniors”.
According to Complete College America, which is a thirty-five member alliance of state governors who released an extensive report titled “The Four-Year Myth” in 2014, the state average for graduating a bachelor’s program at a non-flagship school in four years is a mere 29%.
The report recognizes that there are plenty of understandable reasons for students graduating late, but states that “something is clearly wrong when the overwhelming majority of public colleges graduate less than 50% of their full-time students in four years.”
In an effort to make sense of my own situation, I sought out fellow super-seniors at UMass Dartmouth to hear their individual stories and hopefully discover a connection and the answer to our collective problems.
Unfortunately, the only common link among these stories is a general sense of displacement for students who feel that they weren’t properly guided towards their graduation.
Looking back at my first semester as an undergrad, I recall that my transition from high school to college was jarring and can easily be called the stormiest time of my life. I was so poorly prepared for college I was nearly convinced that I wasn’t cut out for it.
The mistakes I made during that first semester, combined with a few other small instances of negligence and pure bad luck, are what ultimately lead to my super-seniordom.
Another super senior, Christos Hadjikyriacou, entered UMass Dartmouth as a Crime and Justice Studies major and switched to Computer Science after a full year of classes. He claimed that he couldn’t take prerequisite classes for his new major because they were only being offered in either the spring or fall semester, which put him behind schedule.
Alyssa Karen, a recent graduate of the Nursing program, had a similar experience. The Nursing track is very strict, and after failing just one class that only ran during the spring semester, she too fell behind.
Joshua Yerka is a Civil Engineering major in his sixth year. He never took Chemistry in high school and, without that basic knowledge, ended up having to retake it three times in college.
Yerka also cited issues with offerings as one of the primary reasons, as did several other students I had the chance to speak with. Almost all assigned some blame to the university for not giving them direction.
My search for answers eventually led me to a room that I had forgotten existed and had never once set foot in during my first four years of college: the Advising, Support, & Planning Office.
Suzanne Melloni, the Director of Academic Advising, Carol Spencer, the Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Success, and Tammy Silva, the Director of Institutional Research, sat down with me to discuss the issue.
Silva provided me with statistics that nearly matched those reported in “The Four-Year Myth”, confirming the fact that UMass Dartmouth is no exception to the trend.
To my surprise, all three women agreed that four-year programs can be challenging and that there are unfortunate circumstances that could attribute to late graduation.
Spencer admitted, “For transfer students who start off in the spring semester, courses only being offered in the fall could actually throw you off track.”
Also, to my surprise, when asked what the school could do to help students plan better, I was met with a long list of resources and actions the university is already taking to do so.
Among these improvements is COIN’s advisement application and hiring full-time advisors on-call. When Melloni mentioned CAS 101, the mandatory course that focuses on student success and teaching incoming first-year students about the resources on campus, I tried to hide my embarrassment, remembering my brilliant decision to skip that class and retake it in my third year.
I left the office with a fresh perspective and a new question on my mind: Have the requirements for college graduation become more difficult? It’s possible, but this explanation lacks sufficient evidence.