Is Six the New Four-Year Plan?
Andrea Thompson was sitting in her public relations writing course at the University of Houston when it occurred to her that the subject matter was very familiar. She had taken an almost identical class at Florida A&M University, where she began her journey toward a bachelor’s degree in 2000. But the course at FAMU was called “Newswriting and Reporting.”
“PR writing was the same as ‘Newswriting and Reporting.’ It was like writing a news story and putting it in a press release,” says the 24-year-old Thompson. “People were asking questions I knew the answers to. And I just laughed.”
But she wasn’t laughing when she initially transferred from FAMU to UH. Her “Newswriting and Reporting” class and two other courses translated into only one credit in UH’s public relations program. She says that pattern held true for all of her courses, meaning that three semester’s worth of journalism courses at FAMU were only worth one semester’s worth of credit at UH. When UH’s spring semester began in January 2006, Thompson was two semesters shy of graduation, exactly where she had been in August of 2003 at FAMU.
Thompson, like most students, entered college with the intent of graduating in four years. But she now finds herself among a growing number of students who are taking six years to don the cap and gown.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average college student is taking almost five and a half years to graduate. There are any number of reasons why that is so, say students and educators.
“I think it’s the circumstances before them,” says Diane Hall, the director of high school and community college relations at FAMU’s School of Journalism and Graphic Communication.
She says some students take on more internships while in school, hoping the experience will give them an edge when they finally enter the work force. Others, she says, are forced to abandon school for periods of time while dealing with family and financial matters.
“It’s like saying, ‘life happens,’” Hall says.
For many students, early academic missteps can haunt them for the rest of their collegiate careers. Because most students enter college without a major in mind, they make their way through a general studies curriculum before zeroing in on a field of study. According to Hall, some students finally decide on a major, then realize they don’t have a strong enough GPA to get into their school of choice. That means extra semesters and extra money spent on classes that don’t go toward the intended degree.
Financial aid experts suggest that students who rely on federal loans may use up their delegated amounts before completing their degrees. Once the loans run out, the students must pay for classes out of pocket, which often means sitting out until they can earn enough money to continue their education.
“I see that more with nontraditional students who take the maximum [loans offered] every year, and they’re not matriculating to the next level,” says Gregory Scott, a financial aid officer at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Scott says students are guaranteed $46,000 for the duration of their undergraduate careers from federal Stafford loans. The average student, he says, takes up to five years to take out that loan amount. After that, however, their only option is private loans, which tend to be more of a hassle.
“They’re not as easy to receive as Stafford loans,” he says. “You have higher interest rates, and some want you to start repayment after the loan is disbursed. That debt builds up quickly.”
Sean Stinnett is gearing up for graduation from Baltimore’s Coppin State University after taking time off for various reasons. He says the need to work and lack of interest in his major kept him out of the classroom.
He finished classes in early December, but because the school only has one graduation ceremony each year, he had to wait until May 21 to actually walk across the stage and pick up his degree in sports management.
But what’s a few months when you took your first college
class in 1989?
“I never thought this day would come where I could say, ‘I’ll just sit back and wait for this piece of paper,’” says Stinnett, 34. “It’s been long overdue. Such a relief.”
Stinnett started out at Baltimore City Community College. He received an associate degree in communications in 1995 and then he “just jumped around.”
He enrolled at several other schools — including Villa Julie College and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County — before enrolling at Coppin State in 2002. Returning to college meant starting almost over again. Stinnett chose to retake many courses, believing he could earn better grades the second time around.
First, he tried his hand at elementary education, but the classes were not what he thought they would be.
“All that stuff kind of intimidated me,” he says.
That’s when he came across the sports management major. It’s still been a lot to handle, considering that in the time he’s been at Coppin, he and wife, Tamara, have welcomed daughters Sydney, 4, and Meagan, 2, into their lives. But the college part is finally done.
And not a moment too soon.
“Honestly, these last couple of months have been hectic,” he says. Stinnett now works for WNST 1570 AM, covering the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. “I’m pretty much the last one to graduate as far as my brothers, cousins and whatnot. But I don’t look at it from how long it took. I look at it like I’ve finally accomplished one of my goals at this point. Education is the key to whatever you want to do.
I kept that thought of, ‘one day, I’ll finish.’”
Making Lemonade from Lemons Thompson, a Houston native, remembers packing up her car and heading to Tallahassee in August of 2003. She was excited about beginning her senior year.
She originally arrived in Tallahassee for college in 2000, and was on course to finish in four years. But while setting up her new apartment, she got a phone call from her mother in Houston. The Parent Plus loan they’d taken out each of the three previous years had been denied. Her mom had taken out a similar loan with Thompson’s sister, who was delinquent on the payments.
“I spent the week at FAMU trying to find other options,” Thompson says, calling it one of the most stressful times in her life.
When the weekend came, having received no assistance from FAMU, she packed the car back up and headed home to Houston.
And the dominoes kept falling.
Her mom was laid off. By that point in the year, Thompson
had no chance to enroll in another university; without the loans, she couldn’t afford the semester at FAMU. Her goal of graduating on time was gone, so she decided she would get the transfer to Houston finalized and get a job for the time she was out of school.
“My mom was still laid off. Money had to be made,” she says. “College wasn’t going anywhere, and I needed to make money.” In the process, she found another career — education. Thompson spent a year as a teaching assistant to gain experience in her new career field.
“I liked writing, but I didn’t see myself doing it as an occupation,” she says. Even so, she will cross the stage in December and graduate with a degree in public relations. She says she considered changing her major to education, but after the trials she’s overcome already, she didn’t want to delay graduation yet again.
“I’m like Seabiscuit, the horse,” Thompson says. “I just got my head down, and I’m going.”
Do the ends justify the means? Would she change anything if given the opportunity? Yes and no, she says.
“I would, because it’s been a very long, trying road for me,” Thompson says. On the other hand, she says she would not change anything because she’s learned a lot about herself in
“I learned how driven I am,” she says. “I’m more focused than I was two years ago.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com