2009-04-16 / Features

Out In 4? Some Colleges Guarantee It


HUNTINGDON, Pa. (AP) - Pursuit of a bachelor's degree is often seen as a four-year journey from precocious freshman to savvy senior.

But completing that degree in four years isn't as commonplace as some may think. Just a little over one-third of students going for bachelor's degrees at four-year institutions finish in four years, federal statistics show.

So some colleges have turned to a relatively unusual guarantee in hopes of catching the attention of the financially-conscious parents while distinguishing themselves from public universities that offer lower tuition.

Graduate in four years, or the fifth year is free!

There are strings attached, of course. Students generally must follow certain advising and course guidelines that help prevent them from veering off the four-year track.

Conditions may vary, but generally, if students follow the rules and still don't graduate on time, the ensuing credits or semesters are paid for by the school.

Four other colleges added such promotions for the 2009-10 academic year, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

The association lists and additional 10 schools that offer the guarantee - mainly small, private institutions. A handful of other schools outside the association also offer such guarantees.

The idea has been around for about a decade, said Tony Pals, an association spokesman. But more schools have implemented or started to consider the idea in recent years in part to compete with public institutions that may be cheaper but typically have lower rates of students graduating in four years.

About 36 percent of students going for bachelor's degrees at four-year institutions completed their degrees within four years, according to March 2009 data from the federal National Center for Education Statistics.

The rates differ when broken down by type of school. About 51 percent of students attending private, nonprofit colleges graduated in four years, compared with 29 percent at public institutions.

About 57 percent of students at all institutions finished their bachelor's degrees in six years - 64 percent at private schools, and 55 percent at public schools.

Juniata, with an enrollment of about 1,500, graduates about 95 percent of its students in four years.

"Why not guarantee it? We know how to do this,'' said Michelle Bartol, the college's dean of enrollment. "You're not going to be a five-year or six-year kid here.''

Mercer College, in Atlanta, announced its "Four-Year Pledge'' program in February. Currently, about 49 percent of Mercer students complete degrees in four years.

Brian Dalton, the vice president for enrollment management, said the school hopes to raise the rate to 65 percent within five years. He expects 9 of 10 freshman to opt into the program when it starts next fall, though it's a voluntary sign-up.

At Mercer, students' course work will be audited each year to be sure courses are taken on time - similar to what other four-year guarantee schools are doing to make sure students stay on track.

"In a nutshell, what the pledge is about, is not just what the in- stitution does in four years, but also to help students understand how their behaviors and choices can'' affect their academic future, Dalton said.

Dalton gleaned the idea from a previous employer, the College of St. Scholastica, in Duluth, Minn., which has had a similar guarantee in place since the mid- 1990s. Larry Goodwin, the school's president, said he thinks the pledge has helped enrollment grow by about 70 percent over the last 15 years to about 3,600.

Although the overall four-year completion rate there is about 55 percent, the college has only twice had to cover tuition costs for students who chose to take part in the pledge program.

In this economy, enrollment officials at pledge schools see the guarantee as another carrot for potential students.

Many contend that a small, private college that may have high tuition but guarantees a degree within four years may be more cost effective than a public university in which students pay less but may stay in school longer.

Staying longer than four years may also prevent students from getting into the work force faster, and earning a paycheck, guarantee proponents say.

Such claims ring hollow, said Robert Pangborn, vice president and dean for undergraduate education at Penn State University. When taking into account financial assistance for public or state-related institutions like Penn State, public schools can be just as good a bargain - if not a better, he said.

About an hour north of Huntingdon, Penn State is Juniata's complete opposite - a sprawling 41,000-student research school that receives public funding.

The university does not offer a four-year guarantee program. It has however, started taking a "critical look'' at programs to trim back courses or other requirements that may no longer be needed, Pangborn said.

Often, caveats that come into play in a four-year pledge school - such as making ineligible students who changes majors - could end up limiting a student's options if they become unhappy with their course of study, Pangborn said.

At Penn State, about 23 percent of students switch colleges, he said. Others take on dual majors or a minor, or may be involved in a professional field which may require more than four years of study.

"We kind of promote the idea of a lot of mobility of majors,'' Pangborn said.

Still others may hold jobs outside of school to help defray costs, which may also push graduation beyond four years.

A four-year guarantee for about 20 degree programs like accounting and anthropology isn't a big draw at Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Jean Sando, the associate vice president for academic affairs, said just three students had signed up for it in the last four years.

Coming to school as an undeclared major, in which one may be less apt to finish in four years, "isn't a bad thing,'' Sando said.

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