Reject the 'Finish in 4' Fad

March 1, 2007

"Finish in four, I promise!" That is what Northern Arizona University is telling its incoming students. With a little better advising and a binding contract to take 15 credits per semester, the university promises that students can complete their undergrad degrees in four years. Utah State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Colorado at Boulder are also offering similar guarantees.

Now, there are some strings. As the Tucson Citizen notes, "It doesn't hold if students change majors midway through college or drop or flunk several courses. A few majors, such as engineering, are excluded because some students need to take pre-college math courses that can extend graduation beyond four years." So, do it right, make no changes, make no mistakes, and you can move efficiently through the university.

As someone who has to report to my university’s provost about what we will do to get our students to graduate in four years, I am sensitive to this newest fad. It affects how our institutions will be ranked and how parents will select the perfect place for their children to study. Yet, as a five-year undergrad myself, I am not sure why this is even a good goal. Yes, our federal loan money, and our state subsidies, will go to more students if we can push them through, but that is exactly what we would be doing ... pushing. And is that what we are here to do? For that matter, is efficiency a worthwhile measure of a college? Of a student?

When I attend events to recruit new students, I rejoice in those who don't know what they want to do. They come to the experience open for adventure, exploration, excitement, and challenge. I tell them that they will probably do better than those who have their future planned out. Why? Because most students change their majors. And, at a public university like mine, students are even more likely to change their majors than their private college counterparts.

Why do students change their majors? I think it is because students have little idea about (a) what jobs exist, (b) what majors correspond with what jobs, (c) what they are good at, and (d) what course of study would best use their abilities.

Hell, when I attend college major recruitment fairs, almost all the students and their parents line up for business, pre-med, and pre-law. (Working class folks tend to go for health sciences and business, because they hear there are jobs there.) I am tempted to just hand out fliers that say, "Business majors have to take accounting and advanced math. Pre-med (and health sciences) folks have to take a LOT of science courses... with labs! When you find you don't like those courses, or you fail a few of them because you actually have no special ability in advanced math or science, come check us out!"

That is how we get our majors, for the most part; the students realize that they picked a major for some bogus reason, like they knew someone who had X job and s/he made a lot of money, and they realize as they take more classes in that area that it is not what they originally thought or that it does not suit them. Then they look for something that actually suits their interests and talents. So, the parents who pushed them into their original major gnash their teeth and complain when their children have to take additional courses to meet our requirements, which are different than their original major, and their time is extended. Yet, while this can be more costly, it is such a bargain in the long term. Better to make the change in undergrad than to figure out, after earning the degree, that you are ill-suited for the professions for which you were prepared.

So, among those who don't finish in four, we first have the confused. Add to this number the students who party too much, who attend a college that doesn't suit them (that was my error), who have adjustment issues transitioning to undergraduate life, whose mental illness expresses itself during college, who have personal traumas in their lives (also my issue), whose families face financial downturns, who face discrimination or harassment, and/or who just bomb a class or two. Suddenly, our numbers look terrible! See how few students we graduate in four years!?! (And we aren't even counting the transfer student s-- the year-to-degree numbers only count students who entered as freshmen. If we included those folks in our numbers, we would see how few students really graduate in four years.)

If we still have a perverse need to measure time to degree rates, we should extend the bar to six years of full-time study, as we do for athletes and for some federal reporting requirements. (Athletes are not the only ones balancing academics with other interests!) We should exclude students who move to part-time status from our count. But I would hope that we would not use these data to rate institutions.

Finish in four sends the wrong message. It says that college is simply utilitarian, a means to a financial end. We should recognize that college is not high school. It is about self-discovery, the investigation of different majors and fields, and intellectual exploration and development. Let's reject this fad and focus on the long-term goals: producing graduates who can write, read, and think critically, and who can contribute to our society.


Lesboprof is the pseudonym of a faculty member and administrator at a public university in the Midwest where the official line is that four years and out is a good thing.

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