The myth of the four-year degree

Students are staying longer for a variety of reasons

Michael Prior

When Michael Prior came to the University of British Columbia in 2008, he expected to spend the standard four years at the school.

Now in his fifth year, he realizes his original plan was unrealistic. The 22-year-old English Literature major has funded most of his own education, so he works for pay about 20 hours a week. That requires a lighter course load.

Prior is hardly alone. In fact, graduating more than four years after starting may be the new standard. A recent study from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario reports that less than half of Ontario university students finish in four years.

Hannah Talbot, a first year Arts student at UBC, was surprised. “I always thought that it was a four-year deal until I came to university and realized a lot of people were in their fifth or sixth year.”

Among the reasons that determine the length of one’s university career, finances play a big role. Like Prior, many students work part-time jobs to finance their educations. Other students, like Matt Williams, who hails from California, are trying their best to avoid expensive fifth years. Because he pays international tuition, Williams would have to spend $36,000 or more to stay.

It’s not just finances that lead to victory laps. Those who study abroad during undergraduate may find it difficult to earn enough credits to fulfill degree requirements in four years. Those who take co-operative education and internship programs find postponing graduation almost inevitable.

For others it may be bleak job prospects that makes them stay longer. According to a survey by the Canadian University Survey Consortium, just one in three students in 2012 had a job to start at after graduation compared to 45.8 per cent who had something lined up in 1997.

However, “super seniors,” whether staying on accidentally or by choice, may want to be careful. A study by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research found that university students who complete their degrees in four years make higher wages. Those who take more time miss out on promotions and raises and may be viewed negatively by employers.

But for Prior, who is going to graduate this fall, extending his stay at UBC has had its perks.

“I think there is a certain benefit in taking that extended period of time,” he says. “You get to focus more on your classes, and you have more opportunities to engage with your professors and be involved in extracurricular activities around the school.”

Vivien Chang studies English Literature and History at the University of British Columbia.




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The myth of the four-year degree

  1. I’m upset by the misrepresentation in this article. After reading the study done by UT, the paraphrasing done in this article is completely misleading and taken out of context. Not to mention the study is done exclusively for the state of Tennessee, which is in a DIFFERENT country.

    • Just looked at the study. Although the findings are about that particular state, it still seems like a worthwhile piece of data to include. After all, the relative worth of a post secondary degree is about the same in both countries when it comes to job prospects. And students did tend to make more money with degrees completed in 4 years. I’m not sure how you think it wa paraphrased incorrectly.

      • Actually, I feel that one only needs to look at the title of the study (“A Profile of Non-Completers in Tennessee Higher Education”) to see that it is an inappropriate choice for this type of article.

  2. ““I think there is a certain benefit in taking that extended period of time,” he says. “You get to focus more on your classes, and you have more opportunities to engage with your professors and be involved in extracurricular activities around the school.””

    What a crock!

  3. While the author has focused on an issue that is very true and salient in current Canadian university trends, I was very surprised that an article showing such a poor gathering of information could make it into a magazine such as Maclean’s.

    I guess what really gets my goat here is that while most of what the article saying is true (many students are indeed taking longer than four years to graduate), this information is presented in a way that makes it seem faulty and unreliable. Instead of comparing university trends at various institutions across the country (colleges as well as universities) and delving deeper into the reasons students may want to take longer to finish their degree (moving away from mere speculation such as “it may be bleak prospects that makes them stay longer”), the article focuses on what three students (two from UBC, which the author conveniently attends, and one from an unnamed school in California) are doing and backs it up with articles that, for the most part, do very little to support extravagant claims that are intended to apply for the entire student population of Canada.

    Still, what surprised me most was the last article choice. It was paraphrased incorrectly (it compared the salaries of graduates with the ones of those who didn’t FINISH their degree and, in a small aside, those who took six or seven years to graduate) and was conducted entirely for the state of Tennessee! I hate to be the one to point this out to people, but in the USA, where education costs are often higher, student graduation trends may be altogether different!

    There is also the title (but really I’m just ranting now), which, as it seems to me, has very little relation to what the article is trying to say. Is the four-year degree a myth that needs to be debunked? Or is it still the bouncing ball that students are striving after but not achieving? The answer to that question is certainly not in the article!

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