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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

December 10, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Annals of a college parent: Graduating in four years is a challenge at WWU

We love a lot about Western Washington University, where my son enrolled this fall. But I’ve had one nagging worry about sending him to Bellingham — that it’s going to take him more than four years to graduate.

Our 18-year-old is finishing his first quarter as a freshman. A recent report by Complete College America underscores my worry: At most public universities, only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years.

Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times

Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times

Taking another quarter, or another year, to graduate would mean another big chunk out of our checkbook.  Complete College America estimates that an extra year at a four-year university costs parents and children $68,153 — the combined cost of attendance and lost wages. (They have a recipe for helping more kids graduate on-time; you can read their report here.)

Washington’s four-year public colleges do better than that, but in a pattern that reflects a national trend, graduation rates appear to have slumped for students who went to school during the recession. Only 35 percent of Western students who went directly from high school to WWU in fall 2009 had graduated by fall 2013. (The previous year’s class did better — 48 percent graduated in four years, and 65 percent graduated in five years.)

Complete College America says one of the causes of slow student progress is an inability to register for required courses. And Western officials confirm that of those students who don’t graduate in time, about half say course access problems held them back. “That is not surprising, given the steep cuts in funding we experienced and the rapid increase in student demand for classes in high-demand fields,” said spokesman Paul Cocke.

The report also says too many course offerings are part of the problem, often overwhelming 18-year-olds with what it calls “an enormous cafeteria of possibilities in the college curriculum.”

Like most universities, WWU requires students to take a number of courses that, taken as a whole, are aimed at providing a broad liberal arts education. They’re called the General University Requirements, or GURs. But it can be difficult to sign up for and complete all the GURs in a timely fashion.

Students must complete the GURs in order to graduate, and the expectation is that they’ll finish most of these in their first few years, so they can move on to the courses they need to complete their major.

In November, my son tried to sign up for English 101, physics and astronomy, but all were full. Instead, he signed up for classes on dinosaurs, anthropology and the humanities of Africa. (He’s been told it will be easier to get classes as he gains more credits and gets a higher priority during registration.)

My husband and I grilled him on his choices and grumbled about his inability to get into core courses. But he mounted a vigorous defense that I’ll paraphrase like this:  I’m only in my first year. For the first time in my life I’m really enjoying what I’m learning — much more than anything I learned in high school. These are all topics that interest me. And I still don’t know what I want to do, so give me a little space to try new things.

Fair enough, I suppose. So we’ll give him some room. For now.

Related: Previous “Annals of a college parent” posts from Katherine Long

Comments | More in News | Topics: Annals of a college parent, higher education, Western Washington University

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