The Five Year Plan

-1Long trumpeted by academic counselors as a useful tool for budgeting out the long road ahead, the four-year plan has been a UCSD staple for decades. But for some students, four years just isn’t cutting it.

For the graduating class of 2008, only 57 percent of all first-time freshman were able to fit everything in 12 quarters.

Although the number of students extending their stay has slowly come down since the late ’90s (with the average time-to-degree peaking in the 2002-2003 academic year at 13.5 quarters), a batch of students are juggling a new collection of concerns for staying a fifth year.

As the nation’s economy sputters and the job market becomes more competitive — unemployment rates have risen over 4 percent nationally since 2005 — motivation to stay in college for an extra year has multiplied.

There’s just one minor setback: According to UCSD’s 2009-10 undergraduate budget, it will cost $24,930 for a student to pay the year in units, university fees, books and basic living costs. And that’s nearly a $1,200 increase from the previous year.

For some students debating whether or not to stay on for year five, the climbing cost of tuition (in lieu of the UC Board of Regents’ decision to increase student fees by 32 percent last Thursday) is a new factor to consider.

Fortunately for Katie Tippets, a Marshall College mechanical-engineering major in her fifth year, tuition wasn’t an issue. Because her mother works at Stanford University, the cost of her education is covered in full.

“I’m really lucky I didn’t have to worry about tuition for an extra year,” Tippets said. “The whole money situation would have definitely been a factor.”

After transferring from UC Santa Barbara as a junior, Tippets adopted a five-year plan when she discovered many of her classes didn’t transfer between schools. She had to repeat a few general-education courses and prerequisites just to gain access to her required engineering courses.

In fact, the transfer-student population is a main contributor to the fifth-year epidemic. According to UCSD’s Office of Student Research and Information, on average, transfer students have always taken at least three years to complete their bachelor’s-degree requirements at UCSD. Almost 78 percent graduated within nine quarters (for a total of five years), and 22 percent needed even longer.

According to Eleanor Roosevelt College Dean of Advising Sarah Spear-Barrett, students must stay cognizant of the maximum number of units to which they are allowed. Once a student has reached this limit, he or she is forced — under contract — to graduate. Spear-Barret said she advises students to keep an eye on their unit capacity before making the decision to extend their collegiate lifespan. Currently, the maximum is 200 units for a bachelor of arts degree, 230 units for a bachelor of science degree and 240 units for double majors.

For Warren College fifth-year Louis Topper, overlooking an opportunity to study abroad to ensure a standard fourth-year graduation was out of the question.

“I was unable to include a study-abroad experience and finish my mechanical-engineering degree in four years,” Topper said. “But I decided I wanted to go to Sweden. I needed that for my collegiate experience, and this was the only way to do it.”

According to the Programs Abroad Office, most students make progress toward their degrees — taking GE and major classes — while studying abroad through the Education Abroad Program. But whether or not a student can graduate on time depends on his or her major, how long that student remains abroad and what classes are available in his or her particular program.

Then, of course, there are the double-major with a minor on the side overachievers who simply can’t fit everything into a four-year schedule. Or those who just decide to change majors halfway through their college careers (if not multiple times), fully embracing the extra year of college they’re tacking onto their lives.

Warren College senior Colin Scholtz said he faced an inevitable fifty year after changing his major.

“For my first 2 years, I was a chemistry major but I switched to chemical engineering at the start of my 3rd year.” Scholtz said. “Chemical engineering courses have different prerequisites and I needed to take way more math classes to be an engineer.”

Though Scholtz admitted that paying another year of tuition will be tough, he said he’s still willing to bite the bullet for the cause.

“In the long-run though, the degree is going to be worth it, and it’s something I really want to do,” Scholtz said. “Although the technical field isn’t affected too much, I know that a lot of companies aren’t hiring as much as they normally would.”

For Revelle College senior Victoria Cho, on the other hand, the plan to extend a college career can be a strategy in itself.

Cho, a pharmacological-chemistry major, plans to stay an extra year to enhance her credentials for pharmacy school. Instead of loading up on the maximum number of units, Cho takes three classes a quarter, allowing her to spend more time on each class while working two jobs.

“In order to make myself a better candidate for grad school, I feel like I need to do more extracurricular activities, boost my GPA and just be a better person to get into the school I want to get into,” Cho said.

Spear-Barrett said she believes the pros and cons of staying a fifth year really depend on a student’s personal situation.

“The student needs to evaluate whether it’s worth it to pay for the cost of an education in an attempt to boost their cumulative GPA by a little bit,” she said.

For others she said, it may be wiser to find a job before graduation and gain some real-world experience; allowing for students to begin paying off their loans and working towards expanding their resumes with more than just student clubs.

Fifth-years could also be taking refuge in college to avoid the pains of searching for a job. Although student statistics are not yet available beyond the 2007-2008 academic year, UCSD economics professor Gordon Dahl said that enrollment patterns could reveal a greater number of students seeking and extending undergraduate degrees due to economic circumstances.

“Enrollment in college is generally found to be countercyclical,” Dahl said. “When the economy is bad, more students enroll in college, and when the economy is good, fewer students enroll.”

According to Topper, there is really no reason to rush out of college.

“Education is a speed-through process,” Topper said. “But what are we really working toward, other than a nine-to-five job? I want to focus on my education a little longer and possibly make time for other pursuits.”

Readers can contact Kelly Kim at [email protected].

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