Get Me Out of Here: Why Students Aren’t Graduating in Four Years
Words: Kayla McIntosh
As Laura Flores sits quietly at her white desk and stares plaintively at her MacBook, she realizes that each class she needs to take for the approaching fall semester at San Francisco State University is at full capacity. Her long curly brown hair is thrown up in a bun and she buries her circular face in her hands.
“Not again,” she thinks.
Eventually she gazes back at the screen and faces her cruel reality. Wearing a vintage crew neck sweater with Spike Lee’s face arranged colorfully on the front, Flores is skimming the school’s class list desperately hoping that there is an open seat in Principles of Human Physiology Laboratory, only to be defeated when she discovers that all five of the classes offered are already full. Flores is frustrated. This seems to be a recurring theme each semester for her.
Like clockwork, she pulls out her notebook and begins to brainstorm her next move. Before she even puts her pen to paper, she knows what to do because she has already done it before. Jotting down the slots for each of these labs on a piece of college-ruled paper, Flores hopes that one of these notoriously unforgiving college professors will give her a break and allow her to squeeze herself into one of their already crammed classes. This will be Flores’ fourth year at SF State but like many, this will not be her last.
From the moment she stepped foot on campus, walking across a stage wearing the school’s vibrantly hued cap and gown was and still is the quintessential dream.
Flores, a first-generation college student, dreams of being a nurse. Helping people is an undertaking that comes quite naturally for the 21-year-old Los Angeles native. Her childhood home was full of youngsters running and jumping and she was always the one to make sure that everything stayed copacetic.
The only impediment is her lack of options here at SF State. Flores is not the only person who has a dream of lending her helping hand to the helpless. Choosing to be a pre-nursing major was her go-to option when it all boiled down to it, but the courses required are shared with several other popular majors on campus. She finds herself competing with kinesiology majors, biology majors, pre-medical and other pre-nursing majors for those same exact classes.
“These people needs these classes just as much as I do,” she says hopelessly.
Overpopulated? That does not even begin to describe her predicament. With more than 1,800 declared biology majors and roughly 900 declared kinesiology majors for the fall 2011 semester, the competition is fierce.
Her major, like many others at SF State, faces a great rush of thousands of student challengers racing to land a spot in the sparse class options. It is like a screwed-up version of musical chairs, except no one finds it funny when they don’t have a chair to sit in once the music stops.
Amongst college students, the term “super senior” was born. Someone who does not complete their college education in four years is marked as a “super senior” and they are a dime a dozen on the SF State campus. Flores is just one of hundreds of students who will be in their fourth year at the university but will not be walking the stage the following spring semester.
For the fall 2012 semester, there are currently 114 students who will take longer than four years to obtain their baccalaureate degree. With a population of nearly 30,000 students admitted, this does not seem too impressive of a number. Yet, this common referral speaks of a different situation as well.
The other version of the term is in reference to students who have obtained more than 144 units without a college degree in hand. These students’ length of stay at SF State is unique in each case.
“Our average ‘super senior’ list is just a little over 300 students,” states Ellayne Hurlbut, registar office specialist at the college. This year the numbers are way above average. She currently holds a lengthy list with more than 588 students.
With more than 9,300 seniors in the fall 2011 semester, one would assume that a large majority of them will have walked the stage the following spring semester.
Not exactly. Only 63 percent of those students obtained their undergraduate degree in the spring of 2011. A large portion of them were business majors while a close runner-up chose a degree in psychology. In the most recent study conducted by the Office of Academic Institutional Research, almost 20 percent of the students enrolled at SF State are business majors. Biology and kinesiology majors were close second and third choices.
So why have none of these students graduated? What else, aside from a lackluster class schedule, could possibly be slowing them down from embarking on their unexplored new career? Maybe their youth and extreme naivety? Or maybe just a new perspective on life?
“Sometimes they may be working on a major and mid-way through, change their minds,” Hurlbut explains.
Others often become “super seniors” by trying to boost their grades and taking random classes hoping this will raise their grade point average on their transcript. Many are re-taking classes they had failed in previous semesters. Some are working on a minor and had some setbacks in the process. SF State recognizes the problem which is why the school has created the On Track to Graduate program to help more students graduate on time.
Jo Volkert, the associate vice president of enrollment planning and management, hopes that with the creation of this new program things will begin to look up.
“It’s a pilot program that we hope to continue in future years if it shows that students were able to graduate more easily as a result,” he optimistically explains.
The school reached out to 300 students who enrolled in fall 2007 as freshmen to become part of this experimental program. Only 131 accepted.
Those who came on board were granted first priority for both early and final registration on the sole condition that they file an application to graduate in the spring of 2013.
The On Track to Graduate program, which started this summer, is attempting to put the fire underneath these students and motivate them to get their degrees pronto.
Jordan Taylor, a 21-year-old business major, is in the same as boat as many in his major. He too will be in his fourth year with no clear date for graduation. Standing at Cafe Rosso with his bright blue fitted cap pointed toward the ground, he is staring intently at a laundry list of classes to crash. In the mix of the hundreds of frantic freshmen and unconcerned juniors and seniors, Taylor is trying to figure out what he wants to eat rather than which course he wants to sit in on.
“I’ve got classes lined up from 8 this morning ’til tonight,” he says with a chuckle.
Taylor boasts that he does not get flustered in these types of situations, but instead stays determined. Standing at a little over six feet tall and wearing a grey Supreme sweatshirt, his aloof behavior instantly stands out.
Unlike Flores, Taylor is not aware of all the major requirements that were meant for his major. During his freshmen year, his academic apathy contributed to his ongoing college career.
“I mean I definitely partied a lot freshmen year and I never really paid attention to what was said during my meetings with advisers,” he says with a half grin.
The average SF State undergraduate is a 22-year-old bay area native. They are more or less a business or marketing major and have yet to declare which path to choose from. It is easy for some students to get caught up in the thrilling lifestyle that college has to offer like bar hopping on Polk Street on a Tuesday night or catching a hot new band at the Independent on a Thursday. With a city like San Francisco, the options are endless. Who wants to study for their biology exam when there is a Giants game happening at the same time?
Many freshmen students are just like Taylor. Unaware and quite frankly unconcerned with the required course for their major; by the time they do realize it, they are second semester sophomores that are way off track.
Inside the advising office, countless colorful posters advertising internships, job opportunities and scholarships posted on a corkboard bombard the eye. Smiling images of past and current students are printed upon a variety of school-endorsed events.
Meanwhile, frustrated students ambush the front desk in hopes of changing their majors and are often told they may not be guaranteed a spot.
Trying to book an appointment with any adviser in the advising center seems to be harder than meeting the president. Drop-in hours are between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and each appointment is limited to ten minutes.
Some students forget that advisors even exist. When it comes down to attending a mandatory advising session, they dismiss what is said and focus on what is for lunch instead.
But in spite of the dismal statistics, not all seniors will be held back an additional year. A light at the end of the tunnel is in sight for several students despite the hardships they faced at SF State. Ronelle Leisure, a 20-year-old Modesto native, is still in shock that she will walk the stage in the spring. With her hair tightly pulled back in a bun away from her face, Leisure stands in front of the impeccably completed library on campus and gears herself up for her next class.
“I just can’t wait to get out of here,” she says. As a business major, she too fought her way into classes and managed to come out on top.
Walking out of here will be no easy venture though. She has to commit to a hefty load of 18 units per semester, but she is confident that she will succeed.
Jade Rocca is on a mission to entrepreneurial success. After transferring here from Southwestern College in San Diego, Rocca declared her major in business and sought out a speedy graduation date. Back in Southern California, her parents have owned a business for the past seven years and have every intention to keep it all in the family.
“When I graduate I’ll move home and start working with my parents and bring what I have learned to the business,” she says with excitement.
Although she is technically a junior, she too does not see a four year graduation plan in her future.
“I check in with advising once a semester to make sure I stay on track and not mess around with classes I don’t need,” she explains.
With more than 5,000 declared business majors and a little less than 80 classes, she and the rest of her pupils are bound to run in to some conflicts.
There is a plethora of reasons why students are not graduating on time. Whether they have a life changing moment midway through their sophomore year and decide to switch paths along the way or they are full-time students working long hours at their part-time jobs, graduating in the expected four-year period is desired but not always possible. Some are just hoping they make it by. Gibran Leon, a criminal justice major and political science minor, is still unclear as to where his future lies.
“To be honest with you,” he says with his head looking downwards. “I’m hoping I’ll be able to walk out of here in four years, but you never know.”