Three years ago, Mary Kate Reamer didn’t think graduating in four years would be possible.
“The only reason I came to UWM was for architecture,” she reflects.
It took just one semester for her to realize architecture wasn’t for her.
“When I dropped that, I felt lost, like I was on a time crunch to graduate in four years.”
Reamer finally settled on psychology at the end of her sophomore year. On Sunday, May 19, decked out in her cap and gown, she will walk across the stage at U.S. Cellular Arena, fulfilling that four-year plan.
Of the 4,100 students who started at UW-Milwaukee in the fall of 2009, Reamer will be just one in the roughly 15 percent who have managed to graduate in four years.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s College Completion Project, that’s about half the national average of 31 percent. Within the University of Wisconsin System, UWM ranks third to last in four-year graduation rates, just ahead of UW-Oshkosh and UW-Parkside.
“I’m not surprised,” says Gesele Durham, UWM’s Assistant Provost for Institutional Effectiveness and Director of the Office of Assessment and Institutional Research.
“We’re an urban access institution with a lot of non-traditional students. A lot of students aren’t academically prepared. We try hard to keep them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Durham says neither the institution nor its students are solely to blame, but rather a complex set of factors.
“There’s a lot to it,” she says, “when you have to take each individual into account.”
“The key to graduating in four years is knowing what you want and sticking with it,” says Nick Smith, who is graduating in four years with a double major in human resources management and information technologies management.
As a freshman, he had his heart set on HR and eventually picked up IT management in order to make himself more marketable.
“I pretty much stayed the course,” he says, “so I’m lucky in that regard.”
Kristin Zenz, a communication sciences and disorders major, is another four-year graduate who managed to stay the course. She says most of her fellow classmates are graduating in four years.
“I guess I picked the right one,” she says of her major.
However, not everyone is so lucky. Before choosing psychology, Reamer spent some time exploring different majors. Even though many of the classes didn’t end up going toward her psychology major, she says they were vital in getting her general requirements out of the way. If you don’t have a major, Reamer says it’s all about actively takings credits and spreading the class load across different subjects.
Like Reamer, Anna Strozinsky also spent some time experimenting. Now an education major with a broad field social studies concentration, she spent her first semester at UWM as a dance major. Because her concentration has now been officially declared a five-year major, her experimentation didn’t work out so well. When she graduates next spring, it will mark the end of her sixth year in college.
“It just makes me sad,” Strozinsky says. “I don’t regret doing dance, but it’s like you’re being punished for exploring your interests. College is supposed to be a time to explore. If I would’ve changed to something simpler, maybe I could’ve gotten done in four years.”
Katie Robers, another education major with a broad field social studies concentration, transferred to UWM from Parkside and wishes she would’ve had more time to explore. When some of her general courses didn’t transfer, she took an interpersonal communication class and really enjoyed it.
“If it would’ve been my first year, I probably would’ve gone that route instead,” she says, “but I thought ‘I’ve already wasted too much time.’”
Transferring out of four-year contention
As evidenced by Robers’s situation, graduating in four years becomes even more difficult when students throw transferring into the mix.
“I think anybody who transfers expects that they’re not going to get done in four years,” says Maegan Krause, a journalism major who hopes to graduate next winter with just one extra semester under her belt.
After transferring from Oshkosh at the beginning of the year, Krause has run into one problem after another. First, she couldn’t declare her major right away. Secondly, UWM doesn’t offer photojournalism, her first concentration choice. Her fallback was the advertising/public relations track, but the credits she needed to get into one of the core classes didn’t transfer, only counting as electives. Without that core class, graduating on time within the concentration wasn’t an option, so she went with media studies.
“It just wasn’t worth it to me to go that extra semester to get the concentration,” Krause explains. “I’m not really interested in media studies, but I don’t think it’ll be a problem in my future career.”
Krause says she already has photography experience outside of school, so, as long as she gets some kind of bachelor’s degree, everything should be fine.
Robers says UWM could make the transfer process easier. After starting at Parkside, she transferred to UWM when Parkside cancelled her program.
“UWM is just bad for transfer people,” she says. “I was one of a lot of students who transferred to UWM and UWM knew about it. My advisor was even like, ‘Oh, you’re one of the Parkside refugees.’”
While many of the history credits she’d taken at Parkside didn’t transfer to UWM, Robers says one refugee who transferred to Platteville had most of hers accommodated.
In hind sight, Robers says she wouldn’t have transferred, but instead graduated from Parkside with a history degree, then moved on to UWM for education.
“It was a fast choice,” she reflects, “and I made the wrong choice.”
However, the transfer difficulty isn’t Robers’s only problem.
“A lot of those history credits didn’t count for anything here,” she explains, “but they’re still credits and they take up your maximum amount.”
If a student goes over 165 credits in their undergraduate career, he/she faces a credit surcharge, which would require them to pay the full amount of semester tuition instead of splitting the difference with the state – a nightmare for transfer students and those in credit-heavy majors. Both Robers and Strozinsky are expecting to pass the 165 credit mark next year and have petitioned UWM to get the surcharge waived.
“I’ve been taking 18 credits every semester, with no classes outside the realm, in order to graduate,” Strozinsky says. “I’m already poor and giving UWM a ton of money. UWM could have helped me out and still made a killing.”
Robers and Strozinsky are both thankful for the education they’re getting within the education program, explaining that UWM’s emphasis on urban education and more specialized concentrations will make them more marketable. They just wish the curriculum was more flexible.
“The only way to do four years is to take a lot of summer and winter courses,” Strozinsky says. “Even if you do manage that, you’d have to do it strategically to keep on the major’s schedule. Part of me feels like UWM doesn’t want us to graduate in four years, like there’s some incentive to keep us here longer.”
Taking advantage of resources
While all of the students have heard of inept advisors damaging students’ chances to graduate on time, Zenz and Smith say it was not a major problem for them. Smith even opted to go to walk-in advising hours over seeing his assigned advisor. Krause says her UWM advisor is more helpful than the one at Oshkosh.
Although Reamer wishes she would’ve had more advising help in the psychology department, she says that, overall, UWM offers students plenty of resources to stay on track, whether that’s visiting the Career Development Center or the Student Success Center or getting tutoring.
“I think that’s more on the students,” she says. “There’s plenty to do, it’s just a matter of students putting in the effort.”
Durham agrees. While a lot of the four-year graduation rate has to do with the degree the university goes to to get people through and whether the university has the necessary resources, she says students also have to take advantage of those resources.
Making a commitment to commencement
Sometimes students just aren’t ready to make that four-year commitment. While Smith is graduating in four years, he says, with two majors, he would’ve been fine with taking an extra semester. Krause says some of her family members took over four years, so she didn’t really feel the pressure.
“But it’s not cheap,” she says. “I wanted to do it for the sake of keeping my student loans down.”
Reamer thinks four-year expectations are part of the problem.
“You’re expected to be so future-oriented,” she explains. “At 18 or 19, I don’t know how many people are ready to deal with that. The problem is when people go to college because society’s telling them to, not because they really know what they want to do.”
However, Smith says changing majors and excessive socializing can only last so long; students need to step up at some point.
“The biggest thing is committing to the work,” he says. “I think that’s an expectation of college, but sometimes it’s a steep slap in the face for some students when it doesn’t work out. Some do a great job of balancing everything, but others don’t.”
Smith, Zenz and Reamer all had to sacrifice socially in order to graduate in four years, often turning down social commitments because they knew it would interfere with school. While Zenz says there were some semesters where her credit load got in the way of plans, in the end, it was worth it.
“A lot of the people in my major who didn’t get into grad school are the ones who didn’t sacrifice their social life,” she says.
Reamer thinks partying sometimes masks students’ educational insecurities.
“Some people avoid the fact that they don’t have a major,” she says. “Instead of dealing with it head on, they cope by ignoring it or partying.”
Zenz says some people might do that subconsciously.
“Maybe they’re not trying as hard because they’re scared they won’t be able to find a job after school,” she says.
While the economy causes many people to look at the experiences of students after college, Reamer thinks more focus should be placed on why it’s keeping them there.
“Being in college is just very comforting and safe,” she says. “College was just something to do while the rest of the world worked itself out. It was all about waiting for a better tomorrow. I’m not excited for graduation because I don’t know what’s out there.”