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In Praise of an Extra Semester

Connie Lissner


I’m encouraging my younger son, a full-time college sophomore, to plan on an extra semester — or even a year — in college. That’s right. I am encouraging him to spend more money on college tuition.

No, I did not win the lottery or lose my mind. I’ve simply decided that four years is not enough time — for him.

This wasn’t the original plan.

I remember looking at colleges when my oldest was a high school junior and wondering why they shared statistics on students graduating in five or six years. “No way,” I thought, “will my sons take more than four years to get their degree!”

Clearly that vow is going the way of the “No way will I let my children watch television!” vow I made before actually having kids.

Apparently, graduating in four years is no longer the norm. According to Complete College America, a nonprofit group based in Indianapolis, only 19% of students at public universities graduate in four years. Among the reasons cited for the delay are students being unable to enroll in required courses, changing majors/degree programs and transferring — all common scenarios in today’s higher education landscape.

At the moment, none of these applies to my son. He seems set on his major, has no intention of transferring, and can easily get into his required classes. It’s the number of credit hours that are giving me pause. He insisted that the only way he could graduate with a biomedical engineering major and a minor in mechanical engineering and have an internship and study abroad was by taking 20 hours of classes his second semester freshman year — and maintaining that pace through sophomore year and possibly beyond.

His plan came to a screeching halt mid-way through last spring semester when he became ill and his grades started to free fall. The only way out of the situation was to drop a class and retake it over the summer — making the 4-hour Chem II class (that we told him not to take in the first place) twice as expensive.

His response? He’d resume his ambitious pace this year and simply be better organized.

Hmmm…

Maybe I have lost my mind, or maybe I’m just babying my baby, but 20 hours of math, science and engineering classes seems like an awful lot. Even if he wanted to take 20 hours of English and philosophy, or econ and accounting, I would still think he was setting himself up for failure, not to mention extreme anxiety. And at a time when anxiety and depression are at an all-time high for college students, helping my son manage his expectations is a priority.

Besides, when did college become all about studying? Don’t get me wrong — I don’t believe anyone should spend a quarter of a million dollars to hang out with friends and binge watch Netflix. But there’s supposed to be more to the college experience. Like sleeping and eating. Venturing into new spaces and trying things for the first time. Getting to know people who are dramatically different from the crowd you grew up with, stumbling on fascinating subjects you didn’t know you were interested in, grappling with challenging ideas and situations.

Figuring out who you want to be as an adult.

I have a friend who took an education course to be with his girlfriend and within the first month of class switched his major from architecture to education. He’s been happily teaching 6th grade math for over 20 years (not sure what happened to the girlfriend, though).

Shouldn’t these things also matter?

I recognize it’s not always feasible to tack on an extra semester or take random classes to find your passion. However, sometimes the cost to a student’s mental and physical health is greater than the monetary cost and needs to be given its due weight.

To see if I was coddling my son or if there was merit to my concerns, I ran all this past a friend who is a college consultant and a clinical therapist. Andrea Goodman, LCSW, is no stranger to the anxiety surrounding the college process and the financial concerns that go along with it. Not only does she work with teens and young adults, she’s also the mother of three high school and college students.

Andrea agrees that the college experience should be about more than just studying — to a point. “Managing their time, dealing with conflict, living with and surrounding oneself with people with differing views and perspectives, are equally important, if not more so than anything learned in a classroom environment,” she explained. “This process should not be rushed as it takes time and experience — and the chance to make and learn from mistakes — to become an emotionally healthy adult.”

However, she also notes that learning to manage personal finances and live within a budget is a key step along the path to adulthood. That means taking into account available resources and adjusting where necessary. Those adjustments may include completing part of the degree at a community college, applying for student loans, finding scholarships, or forgoing other plans — like study abroad or a gap year.

My son is still pushing to “finish in four.” He doesn’t want to go further into debt, especially since he intends to go to graduate school which will cost money, too, and postpone his entrance into the workforce. I get it. It took me a long time to pay off my student loans but that was a price I willingly paid for switching majors, studying abroad and choosing to attend law school.

It wasn’t what I planned as a freshman in college but I adjusted. Just one more thing I didn’t learn in a classroom…

Connie Lissner is a writer, lawyer, wife and more importantly, the mother of two sons — one in college and the other a recent graduate. She was once told that a child’s job is to constantly push a parent’s limits and her boys do their job very well. She, in turn, is trying to do her job of not totally screwing them up. She navigates the slippery slope of motherhood one mistake at a time. Connie’s parenting failures have been featured on The Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, Grown and Flown, Scary Mommy, LifeAfter50, Club Mid, BlogHer and in the book, Not Your Mother’s Book…on Parenting.

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