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Negotiating reality with four-year degree pressures

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Students are often encouraged to complete their undergraduate degrees within four years. However, over the last few years, students have faced overwhelming challenges that have made this more unrealistic: the pandemic derailed normal, in-person learning, mental health crises reached an all time high, and the cost of living rose considerably, especially for students on an already tight budget.

For many students, this has made graduating within four years not only unreasonable but impossible. In fact, even between 2010 and 2014, only 40 per cent of students graduated within four years of starting their degree, according to Statistics Canada.

Thomas Cross-Trush, the vice president student life at MacEwan University acknowledges the difficulties that students face: “In my opinion, it’s growing increasingly unrealistic for students to complete their degree in four years,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

“While some students can absolutely go ahead and take a full five courses and get their degree done in four years, I definitely see a lot of value behind taking your time with it a little bit,” he continues. He says this extra time can allow students to explore extracurriculars and experience more that the university has to offer outside of classes.

“There’s definitely still an avenue to get your degree done in four years, and I can understand students who really want to get out into the workforce,” notes Cross-Trush, “(but) I’m not sure if it’s the best strategy for some students these days anymore.”

Rose Ginther, the associate dean of the faculty of Fine Arts and Communications is on the same page. “I think it’s quite rare that a student can come in and just start and finish within that four-year timeframe,” says Ginther. “I think that the idea of a four-year degree program is still ideal, but I don’t think it’s within reach of some students right now for so many reasons.”

“The pandemic has just added that huge layer onto absolutely everything we do. I recognize that for students that it has been extraordinarily difficult, and that’s (one) reason why I have seen students go to part-time study in the last two year,” Ginther adds. “It is just too difficult right now. Everything in life has been difficult.”

Cross-Trush and Ginther note that some of the obstacles to a four-year degree include pandemic pressures, financial needs, mental health concerns, and maintaining a social life on top of other responsibilities. These pressures can generally be lessened if students take an additional semester or year to complete their degree.

A quick question I posed to the MacEwan Used Book Exchange Facebook group revealed that most of the 71 MacEwan students who responded seemed to agree with Cross-Trush and Ginther.

“It took me about six years in total to graduate with my BA in psychology,” says Elise Farand, who graduated from MacEwan in spring 2021. “I spent every one of those years, except for the last, juggling full-time school and full-time work. (I) ended up withdrawing or failing a handful of classes and suffered constant blows to my ego and self-worth. I wish I would have spent more time worrying about the quality of my education, rather than the duration.”

Kiara Weiss, a first-year student in the bachelor of science program at MacEwan agrees: “I don’t think it’s realistically possible (to graduate within four years). Obviously, everyone is different, but considering most full-time students work part-time jobs, and in order to graduate in four years, (students need) to take five classes per semester… I don’t think it’s manageable for everyone.”

“I’m graduating in six years, and four years was absolutely out of the picture for me,” adds Paige Goshko, a sixth-year ecology major at MacEwan University. “Between working, extracurriculars, and struggling with mental health, I could only take three courses per year for my BSc.”

“I had no clue what I wanted to do until my third year and then started independent research in my fifth year, which would not have happened if I tried to graduate in four years and burnt myself out,” continues Goshko. “I think we need to focus on graduating with our mental health in check over graduating ‘on time.’”

Statistics Canada reported that youth aged 15 to 24 experienced the greatest decline in mental health across all age demographics during the pandemic. By July 2020, only 40 per cent of youth reported excellent mental health compared to 60 per cent prior to the pandemic. Since MacEwan’s average student age is 24, according to the MacEwan website, this is very relevant to MacEwan students.

Even before the pandemic, 70 per cent of Canadian university students experienced overwhelming anxiety in 2019, according to the National College Health Assessment.

“I personally think we need to adjust the narrative so that there’s less pressure on the timeliness of getting your degree within four years, and more support (and) understanding in terms of life situations, mental health, time that needs to be spent volunteering, working, (or) gaining experience outside of the classroom,” says Farand.

The increasing cost of living is also putting pressure on students. In 2020, the cost of living in Edmonton was 33.2 per cent higher than it was in 2005, according to the Edmonton Social Planning Council. Rent is also increasing, with the average cost of Edmonton one-bedroom rentals increasing from $1,035 to $1,048 between 2020 and 2021 according to the Housing Market Information Portal. While this is still an arguably small amount, it adds up, especially when you factor in food inflation (a 5.7 per cent increase in food costs in between January 2021 and January 2022, according to Statistics Canada), and tuition increases that began in earnest in 2020, after tuition prices were unfrozen, according to a CBC article.

“With rent prices so high, student loans barely covered my rent and bills so I also worked part time during my degree. I finished my degree in five years, and am now drowning in student loan repayment for the rest of my life,” says Nikayla Rose Collins, who graduated from MacEwan in 2019 with a bachelor of science degree.

Graduating within four years is possible if students have a strong network of support and are able to live at home, for example. And while there are definite benefits to graduating within four years, namely a quicker entry into the workforce, the benefits may not outweigh the consequences.

Lauren Shaw, a third-year bachelor of arts student at MacEwan, is on track to graduate within four years, while having worked two jobs during her university career and taking spring and summer courses. “The fact of the matter is that I’m incredibly burnt out, for three years now,” says Shaw. “So, if you’re wanting the university experience and to have somewhat of an enjoyable time, I think it’s more realistic to graduate in five years.”

“If you have the resources and support you need, you can for sure grind out your undergrad in four years,” adds Dana Jones, a second-year bachelor of arts student at MacEwan. “However, I’m not certain that most students, including myself, have the financial, emotional, and mental capacity to take the prescribed five classes and graduate in four years.”

“It’s incredibly hard to balance (school, work, and a social life), and I feel myself having to choose between things I actually want to do for my own mental health (and) school,” adds Jones. “I think if the pressure of graduating in four years wasn’t so strong, I wouldn’t be so burnt out.”

Graduating within four years may have been the norm, but increasing pressures have made it much less feasible for students. It’s time that we step away from the four-year structure and focus on a university experience that works for individuals. Mental health needs to be prioritized, students need to be able to wind down and have a social life, and other commitments, including work, volunteerism, and family need to be given equal weight. Whether an under-
graduate degree takes four years to complete, or five, or six, or eight, what’s important is that students are able to choose a path that works for them, not one they feel they have been pressured into taking.

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