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Why can't I graduate?

Students have trouble earning four-year degrees in four years

By Todd Brison
On November 18, 2012

The East Tennessee State University campus is filled with students who want to graduate.
For some, the path is longer and more difficult than for others.
"I feel like I got a slap in the face from the graduation office," said Josh Dean, a senior who will have been at ETSU nine semesters when he graduates. "The very same day I filed my intent to graduate, [the graduation office] told me I was missing a non-U.S. history class. So, now, not only do I have to take another class over the winter session, I can't walk until May. That's what's really frustrating. They're making me walk five months after I finish my last class."
Dean is not alone. There are several undergraduate students who are enrolled longer than four years to complete their first degrees.
"ETSU has already told me that I'm going to take five, maybe six years to get finished," said Max Garcia, a sophomore in the computer science department. "I started out at Tusculum and since it was a private college, some of my credits didn't transfer. Then once I declared computer science here, I had to go back and take some of the general science classes for that degree. That's why I'm behind."
According to ETSU's Fact Book (, of the students that came in fall 2007 as full-time freshmen, 17.1 percent of the students graduated within four years.
Although ETSU does not yet have stats on how many of those students continued with the program within the next few years, statistics from 2005 show that about 20 percent more of the class stayed and graduated in their fifth year, and another 8 percent finished in the next year.
However, Ramona Williams, vice provost for Enrollment Services, said that these five- and six-year students are not unusual.
"If you look at the statistics, there aren't really that many more people that are taking longer to graduate," Williams said. "Life gets in the way of best laid plans at times."
According to Williams, there are many reasons that keep students from graduating at the expected time.
After years of working with students that have all kinds of different situations, she has seen some of the things to blame for keeping a student from walking after four years.
"I think there are various issues," Williams said. "Their parents get sick, their parents lose a job and they have to work, students themselves can get very sick ... sometimes they just don't know what they want to do when they get here. It's OK to be undeclared at first, but students need to work towards coming declared."
Williams says that the best way for a student to graduate on time is to stay involved with their professors and be in touch with their advisor(s) at all times.
She also thinks that being involved with extra-curricular activities around and on campus can help a student be more in touch with what is going on.
It also helps if the student has a clear idea of what he or she wants to do.
If that's the case, the advisors are able to plan out all the classes beginning with the student's freshman year.
Some students, like Matt Neas, feel the five-year plan is not a bad way to go.
"My mom graduated from ETSU in only three years," said Neas, now a graduate student in speech pathology. "And she says she wishes she hadn't rushed it."
Neas, who earned a degree in Spanish with a communicative science minor, says he enjoyed every bit of his five years at ETSU.
He enjoyed the time he was able to spend pursuing other things he was interested in such as music.
While involved in the music department, Neas was a member of Chorale and 10 Bucs Worth, a men's barbershop group. He also says that the five years made his schoolwork less stressful.
"My scholarships allowed me to stay longer," Neas said. "So I wasn't terribly bogged down with schoolwork, so I could focus more and get better grades in each class, which helped me get into grad school. Actually, my fifth year was my favorite."
According to information from The Chronicle of Higher Education, about 20 percent of all students that enrolled in a public school in Tennessee were able to graduate in four years.
The average student cost to complete a degree, not accounting for the years taken, is $69,181.22. At ETSU, the student average for cost to graduate is $77,501.
Over the last 10 years, the number of students who have managed to finish their degree in four years has wavered between 16 percent at the lowest in 2003 and 22.9 percent at the highest in 2006.
Money is another reason that some students struggle to get through in four years.
If scholarships and financial aid do not cover the cost of tuition and living, many students will find part-time or full-time jobs in the area to make up the difference.
Williams said that sometimes students start a job with the intention to pay their way through school.
That can quickly turn into something different.
"Some people, actually I'd say most people, have to work and go to school at the same time," Williams said. "Sometimes if you do a really good job, if you're making good money and your boss realizes it, you've got an opportunity to make more money. All of a sudden you've got a chance to work more hours, make more money, and then the job becomes the focus rather than school."
Still, other students blame the internal works of ETSU's advisement office.
"Many things added to me not graduating in normal time," said Kelsie Gardner, who graduated in May 2012. "I think all of the little things can be traced back to one: lack of advisement ... Basically, I think ETSU advisement sucks. I understand that ETSU advisers quite likely have more students to advise than they have time for, but that doesn't mean they can slack on that job."
As for graduation at ETSU as a whole, Williams says that there is definitely room for improvement.
"Right now we're at 44 percent or so for a graduation rate," Williams said. "That's not a big improvement [from 10 years ago]. Is that where we want to be? Absolutely not. We want more students to graduate with their degree."

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