Officials: Varying explanations for extended college careers

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    Though most students go to college to get a degree and further their careers, some students seem to make a career out of going to college – but not on purpose.Chris McNabb, a fifth-year senior, said he would have liked to graduate in four years. He said he thinks the reason he has had to stay an extra year and has had to take more than 20 hours a semester the last two years is due to taking too much time picking a major.

    “I think it starts all the way back before I even came here, going to orientation, and them telling us you don’t need to pick a major,” said McNabb, a music education major. “They even said being a premajor is cool.

    “So immediately, from the outset, there’s no sense of urgency, and that’s a real problem when some of the majors here are requiring a ridiculous amount of hours.”

    A prereleased draft of the 2005 survey of graduating seniors, compiled by the Office of Institutional Research, reported that more than two-thirds of the respondents noted that they were able to complete their bachelor’s degree within four years.

    The survey’s respondents who took more than four years to graduate indicated that the most common reasons had to do with majors.

    About one-fourth said changing their major caused a delay in graduation. About one in eight said it had to do with taking a reduced course load. And only 6.3 percent said their extended time in college was related to being misadvised.

    Mike Scott, director of financial aid, said some majors require more credits, so it takes four and a half to five years to complete them. He said Engineering majors, for example, have to take 132 credit hours. Most TCU degrees require 124 hours.

    Even if engineering students take 15 or 16 hours a semester, they still have to take extra classes in order to graduate on time, Scott said.

    “There have been some changes like major requirements that I think cause some students to go a little longer, but on the average, you would think that it would be going the other way,” Scott said.

    The reason students should be graduating on time, he said, is the flat-rate tuition that was instituted in 2002.

    The flat-rate dollar amount covers 12 to 18 credit hours each semester. Permission from a dean is required for the 18th hour, but it is paid for in the fixed tuition. Any credit hours exceeding 18 have additional costs.

    “The more hours you take, the less per hour you are paying,” Scott said. “When we switched over to the block price, that was priced assuming an average enrollment of 15 hours a semester.”

    If students take 15 hours a semester, they are, in theory, paying the average amount, Scott said. If students take between 12 and 14 credit hours, they are theoretically paying more for each hour, he said. But if students take more than 15, they are, in a sense, paying a little less for each hour.

    “Obviously, the more hours you take, the more to your benefit it is,” he said.

    Some students work full-time jobs in order to be able to pay their way through school without taking out a large sum of loans.

    Patricia Bergmaier, executive director of University Career Services, said working while in college is more beneficial than a hindrance to students.

    “(Students) gain some skills they may not gain in the classroom and/or they can apply what they have learned in the classroom in the work place,” Bergmaier said.

    She said that employers are not interested in the time it takes students to graduate, but instead look at how students spent their time while in college.

    “Employers do not care how long it takes a student to go to college,” Bergmaier said. “They do care about how they used those years while in school – such as relevant work experience and good grades.

    “On the r‚sum‚, one does not list the years they have been attending college. They just list the graduation date.”

    But time does cost students money, and the more time they spend in school, the higher the dollar price they have to pay.

    Scott said the average total dollar amount that the financial aid office certified this academic year was about $55 million, which includes educational, student and parent loans. That figure includes private, federal and state loans.

    Scott said the average indebtedness for TCU students in 2003 was $16,640, but that figure only includes student loans.

    “We don’t know the family indebtedness because we do a lot of parent loans too, and there’s really no way to add all that together, but the most recent numbers show the average – and this is an important distinction – the average borrower, not the average student.” Scott said. “Lots of students don’t borrow at all, but the average student who took out a student loan, the average was $16,640 as of the last time it was calculated.”

    The private loans students take out is not included in the figure, and neither are parent loans, he said.

    “There is no way to know exactly because private loans, a lot of them don’t even come through us,” Scott said. “Parent loans are problematic because you could have divorce situations, and which parent took out the loan?

    It’s very difficult to get an accurate count of total indebtedness. All we can go by is what the total average student indebtedness is through the federal loan program.”

    Chancellor Victor Boschini said he doesn’t think taking more than four years to graduate is the norm for TCU students, but that the university actually graduates its students above the national averages in terms of the time it takes to get a degree.

    He said he thinks the fixed-tuition rate aids in a four-year graduation plan for students.

    “I think there are legitimate reasons why some folks do not, and perhaps should not, graduate within eight semesters – especially for the more nontraditional students among our ranks,” Boschini said.

    “Many returning students actually are not working for a degree – they are working purely for enrichment, and thus, they affect the overall stats ‘negatively’ insofar as this is concerned,” he said.

    Scott said he doesn’t know why some students don’t graduate on time, but he said he thinks it has to do with an attitude shift in what is expected of students.

    “Five years ago I would have told you that I would have guessed a big reason was cost,” Scott said. “I just don’t think that is the reason anymore because it costs you more over five years.

    “I think some of it could be work, but I don’t see people working any more than they did either because I see students’ tax returns that are on aid, and I don’t think students are working more hours than they did five years ago,” he said. “I think it’s become the norm. It’s like a socially acceptable thing that it just takes that long. Parents don’t seem to be concerned about it. And if parents aren’t concerned, then students are not going to be concerned. It just seems to be sort of an attitude shift.”

    Scott said the TCU community shouldn’t get caught up in that attitude shift because it is a relatively small university with a focus based on one-on-one time with students.

    “But at a school like TCU, that shouldn’t be the norm,” he said. “What we should be selling to parents when they come in is that one of the benefits of coming to school here is that you can graduate in four years if you want to.