Don’t get stuck doing a Victory Lap

Few schools guarantee graduation in four years


Photo by Helga Weber on Flickr.

It’s so common for students nearing the end four-year degrees to suddenly learn they’ll need to take an extra semester that they’ve developed a name for the phenomenon—the victory lap. Actually, make that two names. I recently heard it dubbed “the fourth-year surprise” too.

Whatever you call it, finding out you need a fifth year of school upends plans for graduate school, starting a career, moving to a new city, travelling. It also destroys your budget, as thousands of extra dollars are suddenly needed at a time when you’ve been drained. Oh, and try getting student loans for one course.

I know what that’s like. I was forced to do victory lap after receiving bad advice at the University of Guelph, which was happy to have me back as a paying customer for an extra four months.

That’s why I was pleased to hear last week that more U.S. schools are guaranteeing students can graduate in four years, so long as they follow all the rules. At least 20 U.S. schools now offer four-year graduation promises and more are planning to add them, Tony Pals, spokesperson for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, told the Wall Street Journal.

Students often don’t realize they’ve missed a requirement until meeting with guidance counselors in their second-last semesters. That’s often too late to fit everything in, considering that many courses are only offered once out of every four semesters. And as shocking as it may seem to many parents, the thousands they’ve contributed to tuition over four years doesn’t buy much guidance counselling. Most schools only offer guidance to first and second-year students who request it.

Even when students proactively meet with advisers—as I did—counsellors are often wrong about whether courses completed on exchange will count as electives or core courses. Sometimes the rules change mid-way through a students’ degree. Sometimes counselors simply give bad advice.

That’s what happened to me in my second last semester at Guelph. I was paranoid about not being able to complete my four-year degree on time, so I sought out my academic adviser and went over every course. One thing that stood out was my third-year British film history course, which was completed with a Guelph history professor during a semester in London, U.K.. Would it count as a history course at graduation time? He double-checked. He decided it would. He signed off on it.

Then, in my last semester of school, I learned that the course wouldn’t count after all, despite my due diligence. I complained all the way to the President, Alastair Summerlee. In a meeting, he agreed that I should graduate on time. But the dean overruled him, without any reasonable explanation to me. I was forced back for a fifth year. I spent most of my semester cobbling together part-time jobs in Guelph, when I would have preferred to have been moving on with life.

Stories like mine are common. Nicholas Kohler spoke to students with similar struggles in his article Really Bad Advice, from the Maclean’s University Rankings, which is on newsstands now.

And not many Canadian schools are taking action. One exception appears to be the University of Calgary, which became in 2008 the first Canadian school to offer a four-year graduation guarantee, but only in its Faculties of Arts and Sciences. Students who want a guarantee are required to sign-up at the beginning of their first years and must promise, among things, to meet advisers during course selection each semester and to complete one-quarter of the degree-work each year.

Such a contract seems like a would be the norm at Canadian schools. Surprisingly, it isn’t. Students should be advised that when it comes to academic advising, there are rarely any guarantees.


Don’t get stuck doing a Victory Lap

  1. Wow, my experience at Guelph was exactly the opposite. Every single semester I was given a printout that clearly indicated which courses I needed to take to graduate. As long as I completed all the courses on that sheet, I was good to go.

    As for transfer credits, letter of permission credits, and the like, once they were signed off on by my program advisor, they were accepted as part of my program, and counted towards my graduation requirements.

    Maybe the faculty of engineering at Guelph was better organized than whatever faculty you were part of, but I always knew exactly what courses I needed, and when I needed to take them. My first semester I was provided with a program guide, and I was told that even if the requirements for the degree changed, as long as I completed the courses indicated in my program guide than I would be able to graduate.

    It’s too bad you had such a bad experience at Guelph. In engineering I received great advice and knew every step of the way what courses I needed to take.

  2. I would tend to completely disagree with this article. I’m a 4th year student at McMaster university and not only are the guidance counsellors available to every student whenever they need them but all of this information is also available online. The website is very explicit in which courses will reach requirements and which won’t. The onus is on the student to explore and make sure the requirements are met. There’s no reason we can’t do this on our own, as I did. And guess what? I’m graduating on time.

  3. I graduated on time too, but it took 7 different meetings with 5 different academic counsellors, and 1 meeting with the dean + chair of the department OUTSIDE of my regular meetings (once per term) all in a span of 3 years.

    I had transfer credits and when I started at my new school I had discussed the credits with the a guidance counsellor who said they met the transfer requirement and that it would be fine. This counsellor called over to the registrar’s office to confirm that information. This information I found out was crap. This was fight number 1 in which I had to contact my old professors of each class I was transferring from to get the syllabus from them. That was fine, and it got resolved. Funny as they were common first year classes (intro to psychology and intro to sociology).

    I was very organized throughout my 3 years and booked meetings with a guidance counsellor (and faculty advisor) each term (3) to ensure I was on the right track (I did my 4 year degree in 3). I was very upset the summer before my final year when I found out that a required chem course I was expected to take (I had registered in it and everything) was not going to be offered because the professor was going on sabbatical. No other professor was able to take over the course, so I went to guidance to get their help. They told me to come back next year.. which is TERRIBLE advice seeing as this course wouldn’t be offer until Jan 2012 (I graduated in April 2011). And that would make me short 1/2 a credit…

    I met with the chair and dean, and they decided to offer this course during the fall term-which was the same time I was registered in the pre-req for this stupid chem course.

    The last issue with bad advice I had was when I went to apply to graduate. One of my transfer credits did not “mesh” with their new degree audit system, and they needed to speak to the old professor again. I had provided all of the hard copy syllabi from my transfer credits for them to keep in my file. The guidance office at school lost them….I imagine it happened somewhere between their high turnover rate, and their office moving to 2 different locations on campus in 15 months, it’s no wonder they “screwed” up.

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