By Allison Jewell

As of Sep. 25, 2023, the Education Data Initiative cited that a staggering 22.3% of bachelor’s degree earners take more than four years to complete their program.

Many “fifth-year seniors” on campus seem to express frustration with their track, as the expectation for a traditional college route has always been four years. In recent years, however, there seems to be an institutional and personal shift towards a prolonged and personalized college experience.

Unpacking the Standard

When arriving on campus for the first time, there is a large population of the freshman class that is underprepared for the college curriculum. On top of that, the financial burden of a college education can put more barriers between an individual and their education, leading students to work other jobs and lose focus on their academics.

Academic institutions can also lead their students to spend more time and money on their degrees than they should. From inadequate academic advising to being sticklers on transferring credit, many students are not aware that their odds of graduating in four years or even making it to graduation are not high by any means.


A packed KFC Yum! Center at the 2023 commencement ceremony.          Photo courtesy of University of Louisville

While 90 percent of entering students in a nationwide UCLA survey say they’ll graduate within four years – the most basic promise made by a university or college to consumers – only 45 percent of them will,” said NBC News.

Since the pandemic, colleges and even the government have begun to move the expected timeline from four to six years. However, not many are aware of this norm shift, hurting their careers and pockets.

“Universities actually work against a four-year completion. They’ve added credits to graduate, because why not, if they’ve got six years? The profit motive has something to do with it, too. As long as students stay, they’re still paying,” said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the advocacy group Complete College America.

Going on Five

Many students at the University of Louisville happen to be in similar situations.

Izabelle Barton, a fifth-year who is graduating this winter, expressed that she felt discouraged when she realized she may not graduate in four years.

“I was under the impression for a long time that college was a four-year period. When I started school at U of L, I tried very hard to stick to this model. I beat myself up over my inability to keep up with my peers, but with time I understood that education is a personal journey and not something where you should compare your path with others,” she said.

“I absolutely wish that colleges as well as high schools worked to show how college is not something everyone can complete in four years.”

And that’s just it; most students are blind to the fact that their college careers may not be as picturesque as promised. At U of L, the Flight Plans that are advertised to incoming freshmen are centered around a four-year track — something that they most likely know is not that probable.

This issue can also be seen with the large number of UPS workers on campus. Many of these students rely on UPS to pay for their education, only to work long nightshifts and become behind on their coursework.

Happy U of L graduates at the 2023 spring commencement. Photo courtesy University of Louisville

A few students expressed that financial burdens are what caused them to be in the place they are, only worsened by the time commitment to their job at UPS.

These students do not regret their education — they just wish the four-year blueprint did not mold their expectations of how their college experiences would turn out.

No “Normal”

In a post-pandemic world, there is no such thing as a normal college experience.

The timeline of each student’s college experience does not dictate how smart or capable they are, nor does it dictate their work ethic. An individual’s college experience is merely a reflection of their circumstances, and one should never bring themselves down for moving at their own pace.

“Take every moment in and don’t stress the idea of four years because putting yourself in the position to gain a new way of thinking is what will motivate you to find what you’re most passionate about,” Barton said.

College and higher learning is about finding yourself. Spend as much time as needed.

Photo Courtesy // The University of Louisville