Number of "super seniors" on the rise as obtaining a degree becomes more difficult

Robert Jackson was 18 when he entered college as a freshman and 35 years old when he finally received his bachelor’s degree in Spanish last spring, 17 years since he enrolled in his first college course.

Although most students take less than 17 years in their educational journey, Jackson is part of a number of students proving that achieving a degree in four years is becoming more difficult due to various financial, economic and planning-related reasons. The term super senior informally refers to students who take more than four years to complete a bachelor’s degree.

“I had a job offer so I decided to take one semester off, and one semester became two semesters and it just kind of went from there,” said Jackson, explaining why he took several year-long breaks from school between 1994 and 2011.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 30 percent of students earned their bachelor’s degrees within five years, while 20 percent took six years in 2009.

In a report by the Office of Academic Institutional Research for SF State, 8 percent of fall 2004 freshman were still working on their four-year degrees in 2010.

Kim Altura, director of SF State’s advising center, noted she had seen an increase in students taking longer to graduate and cited economic factors as a key component.

“You can’t underestimate that we live in a really expensive area, and a lot of students have to work during school,” Altura said. “Students end up taking only 12 units a semester. You can do the math: It’ll take 5 years to graduate at the earliest.”

Jo Volkert, SF State’s vice president of enrollment management, said for at least the past decade, four-year degrees have taken longer to earn on a national scale, a number she said that is steadily improving.

“Five years is the norm,” Volkert said. “But we’ve put certain things in place to improve these rates.”

Volkert cited developments such as academic road maps and restrictions that prohibit students from repeating courses infinitely as measures that aim to help students speed up their progress.

Volkert also said students changing majors, enrolling part time for work and taking semester-long breaks are other reasons students take longer to graduate.

Altura said that while students come to plan their schedules, they don’t do so on a long term basis and lack the classes to graduate.

Super senior Karina Magana is in her fifth year of school, and is double majoring in Latino/a studies and history, because she didn’t know Latino/a majors weren’t accepted by the teaching program.

“You have to study what you’re teaching and Raza studies isn’t accepted by the teaching program,” Magana said. “But I have to study what I am passionate about.”

Even with the roadblocks students face toward graduation, Altura said not all students have to be in school for longer than they need.

“With careful planning, it’s still possible to graduate in four years,” Altura said.

Despite the long journey and academic difficulties, Jackson said he benefited from the setbacks.

“I would definitely say I was a lot more serious when I came back a second time around,” said Jackson who is currently exploring his options as a translator for start-up companies in downtown San Francisco.

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