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When Your College Student Needs an Extra Year to Graduate

Vicki Nelson

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This is the first part of a two-part series about students who need or choose a fifth year of college. In this article, I look at some of the reasons your student might want or need a fifth year. Part two of the series suggests some ways your student can make the extra year a productive one.

Finishing college is such an important milestone! We look forward to seeing our student launch into the world and have been visualizing that Commencement walk across the stage. We imagine that our college student will reach that milestone in four years. That’s the norm, right?

Maybe not.

If your student finds they need an extra year to finish college, they are not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2020 43.7% of students completed college in four years, 58.7% finished after 5 years, and 60.4% took 6 years. Many students finish college on individualized, unconventional timelines.

Needing That Extra Year

A fifth year of college may be increasingly common, but if you haven’t been planning for it, it can feel like a personal crisis. You probably have mixed emotions. Your student may feel the same way.

Your student, now a “super senior” or identified as “taking a victory lap,” is in a new phase of college. This is a good time to talk about what this extra year will mean for your student and for you. The conversation might begin by trying to determine why your student needs this extra time.

Why an Extra Year?

Some students plan from the outset to follow a five-year timeline to complete college. They know that taking fewer credits each semester will allow them to be more successful, or they realize that they need to work a significant number of hours at a job and so need a lighter course load.

Students whose initial plan is for five years have usually worked with their family to calculate the costs, and they have mentally prepared to move at their own pace.

For many families, learning that a fifth year is going to be necessary may be a slow realization over several semesters or may come as unexpected news. It’s reasonable to say, “what happened?”

There are as many reasons for needing a fifth year of college as there are students. There may be one cause or a combination of factors. Some of these factors might be out of your student’s control, while others may be preventable. Still others are the result of conscious, proactive decisions your student made, or that you made together. Sometimes, students have made small choices along the way without realizing the longer-term implications of those decisions. It is important for you and your student to investigate the underlying causes.

  • Transition difficulties – Your student may have had a difficult time at the beginning of their college career. The transition to college coursework and campus life can cause some students to fail classes, withdraw from classes or possibly need to take a Leave of Absence. These students add time to their clock at the outset.
  • Lighter class load – It may make sense for your student to take a lighter class load. They may be worried about doing well or being overwhelmed, may have family obligations, work obligations, or feel that they need more time for other pursuits. Unless your student has a plan for making up these credits during summer or winter sessions, consistently taking fewer credits will mean that your student will need extra time to complete the required number of credits.
  • Lack of direction – Many students enter college undecided about what major they want to pursue. Initially exploring options can be an excellent idea. But drifting for too long can mean that your student may need extra time once they find their path. Make sure your undeclared student creates a plan for determining their direction.
  • Change of major – Many students change their major (some do it several times) as they discover new areas of interest. Most students can make this change without losing time toward their degree. However, this will depend on the major and on the timing. It is important to work with an advisor to understand the implications of changes. For many students, changing their major to something they love is worth the extra time that it can add.
  • Failing or withdrawing from too many classes – Many college students fail an occasional class. If your student has struggled academically and has failed several classes, or has withdrawn from classes to prevent receiving a failing grade, they will need to make up these credits. Failing or withdrawing from five classes over the course of four years can add an extra semester. If some of these classes are pre-requisites to other courses, it can extend the timeline even further.
  • Missing requirements – Some students fail to keep track of their requirements. Whether these are General Education or major requirements, students need to track that they are taking – and passing – all required classes.
  • Low GPA – Most colleges have a minimum GPA requirement for graduation, often a 2.0 on a 4-point scale. Even if your student has completed all of their requirements, if their GPA falls below the required minimum, they will need to continue to take classes to raise their GPA to the required threshold.
  • Life circumstances – Unfortunately, some students encounter circumstances that impact their ability to progress toward a degree. They may have an illness, have an ill family member, or other family crises that impacts their progress. They may need a temporary reduced course load or Leave of Absence.
  • Transfer – Most students who transfer from one college to another can do so without losing time, but they need to know which courses will transfer and which requirements they will fulfill. Transfer students should look carefully at the all-college requirements, major requirements, and the scaffolding of pre-requisites. Your transfer student should ask how long it will take to complete their degree at their new school.
  • Study abroad – Most students can complete a semester or even a year of study abroad without adding extra time if they plan early and work closely with an advisor to know what they need to do. For some students, the opportunity to study abroad may be worth adding extra time to completion, but this should be an informed decision.
  • Double major – Majoring in more than one area is possible, and with careful planning your student may be able to complete two majors without adding extra time to their degree. This will depend on the specific majors and any possible overlap. For some students, graduating with proficiency in two majors may be worth an extra semester or year.
  • Multiple internships –Completing internships as part of the college curriculum is becoming common. Having one or more internships on their resume can help your student prepare for – and land – the job they want. Some students may decide that spending extra time in college in order to complete several internships or to obtain a prime internship spot may be worth extra time.
  • Additional classes or opportunities – Some students may decide that there are one or more classes or research opportunities that they have been unable to take that will increase their marketability or career options. They may decide to remain for an extra semester or year to be able to take those courses and add them to their resume.
  • Red shirt athlete – An athlete who has a year of not competing, because of an injury, choosing to wait out a year to condition, or because they would probably not play, may have a fifth year of eligibility. Many student athletes have an additional year of eligibility due to the cancellation of athletics during COVID. These students may choose to remain in college an additional year to participate in their sport.
  • Additional credits beyond their degree – Some students may need or want additional credits beyond those required for graduation. Students who are interested in taking the Uniform Certified Public Accountant exam, for instance, need to complete 150 credits to qualify. These students may stay an additional year to complete those credits.
  • Pre-requisites for graduate school – As students make plans to apply to graduate school they may learn that there are pre-requisite courses. They may choose to stay in college to complete these courses before they apply.
  • Fifth Year Master’s Program – Some schools offer a program where students can begin as early as their sophomore year to take some graduate courses along with their regular undergraduate courses. These students remain in school for five years and graduate with both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
  • Tuition Free Fifth Year – A few schools, such as Agnes Scott, Wartburg, and University of Rochester, offer a tuition free fifth year to allow students to take courses outside of their major or in an area of interest – or to complete requirements they were unable to take because of COVID restrictions. This tuition waiver does not usually cover room and board or fees.

Students who remain in college for a fifth year do so for a myriad of reasons. Some have encountered difficulties and need to recoup their losses. Other students make a proactive decision that spending an extra year will provide gains that are worth the extra time.

As with so many college decisions, it is important that you and your student talk early and often about their progress and their timeline and all of the implications of becoming a “super senior.”

Entering the fifth year of college with a positive mindset is essential to success. Part 2 in this series discusses how to work with your student to create a plan to make the fifth year of college a purposeful and productive year.
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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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