Congratulations, Super Senior, You’ve Graduated.
Please Leave.

Congratulations, Super Senior, You’ve Graduated. Please Leave

– California State University at Northridge just wants Randy Vitangcol to graduate already.

Mr. Vitangcol has been in college since 2005. He is on his second major. By the time he plans to finish college next spring, he expects to have amassed twice as many credit hours as he needs to complete the requirements for his current major, financial services.

“I’ve been in college for so long, sometimes it feels like I don’t know anything else,” he admits. He compares himself to Van Wilder, one of a long line of cinematic college students who party endlessly and studiously avoid graduation.

The Cal State system has historically taken a lax attitude toward “super seniors,” students with large numbers of credit hours who linger in college for more than four years. But no more. After budget cuts forced sharp enrollment reductions over the past few years, many of the system’s 23 campuses have taken aggressive measures to thin their ranks and make room for new blood.

Administrators see the programs as a low-cost way to reduce the enrollment pressures during a budget crisis. The tactics, which differ at each campus, often involve holding departments responsible for super seniors, expanding focused advising services, and setting new limits on financial aid.

Charles B. Reed, Cal State’s chancellor, also cited the super-senior program as a relatively easy way to help the system improve its graduation rate. Cal State is seeking to raise its six-year graduation rate by eight percentage points, to 54 percent, by the spring of 2016.

Because of the new rules, Mr. Vitangcol says he was forced to file for graduation before he could register for classes this semester. He said he didn’t know if he would be planning to graduate next spring or not if the rules weren’t in place. The campus’s new policy also calls for revoking his state and federal financial aid after he reaches 150 credit hours.

He will overshoot the cutoff, but just barely. “I’m going to be at 152 by the end of next spring, and that’s when they cut me off, so thank God,” he said.

Many Cal State administrators said they were surprised to learn just how many students had more than 140 units. In the fall of 2008, there were about 800 of those “super seniors” at Northridge alone, or 3 percent of all undergraduates. Officials don’t keep a systemwide tally.

Some of the worst offenders, including a dozen at Northridge, are simply being handed degrees and asked, nicely, to leave.

One fiftysomething Northridge undergraduate with more than 250 credit hours (that’s the equivalent of eight years of full-time enrollment) had accumulated credits for degrees in health sciences and theater. He told officials last fall that he wanted to start over and work toward a degree in marketing.

“Feel free, but not at this university anymore,” Cynthia Z. Rawitch, associate vice president for undergraduate studies, told the man. “At 50 years old, you should know what you want, and you’re stopping two other young people from coming to this university.”

Public universities in many states discourage hangers-on by capping their eligibility for financial-aid programs or in-state tuition at a certain number of years or credit hours. But Cal State has taken one of the most comprehensive approaches, involving advisers, faculty members, and others to attack the root causes of super-seniordom.

“The other states are setting policies and waiting for students to hit the mark,” said David A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Cal State’s approach, he said, is “more student-centered.”

The system’s strategy makes a lot of sense, he added. “Why not spend that time and money up front to help the student?”

The Head-Butting Type

But the task is more difficult than it might seem. Yes, some students stay in college because they love it or because they want to avoid looking for a job, especially during the aftermath of a recession. At Cal State, those students are known to avoid a single requirement needed for graduation, such as a writing examination, so they can continue taking classes.

But for a larger group of students, including Mr. Vitangcol, the reality is more complex. His case demonstrates how difficult it can be for colleges to distinguish between lackadaisical wanderers and those who are truly lost, and to provide the right kind of support at the right time.

Like many super seniors, Mr. Vitangcol started off in the wrong major. He took prerequisites for a pharmacy major, which would prepare him for medical school, something his mother was pushing. The courses were OK, he said.

But chemistry was giving him trouble. He got a D in Chemistry 101, just barely managing to pass. In Chemistry 102, the formulas from the first course were still fuzzy in his mind, and reapplying them to more-advanced concepts proved too difficult, he said.

He flunked. He tried the course again, but when he found out he was headed for a second failure, he began to realize that maybe he wasn’t going to be a doctor. Two years into college, he felt like he had to start over.

“My mom was like, medical is secure, it’s not gonna change, yada yada yada,” he said. “And then, I don’t know. I couldn’t do it. It was not my thing.”

Mr. Vitangcol’s story is familiar, said Elizabeth T. Adams, associate dean of humanities at Northridge, who called students who have repeated trouble completing their intended major “the head-butting type.” Those students (and, often, their parents) want a degree in a field seen as having good job prospects, such as medicine, engineering, or business, but their intended program is not a good fit, she said.

Sometimes it’s for family or cultural reasons that students feel pressure to get a degree in a specific field like business or engineering, Ms. Adams said. Compared with the happy-go-lucky type who just wants to stay in college to party or learn more, “those people don’t have such a charming and lovely story,” she said.

Part of the challenge is to identify these students as early as possible, to prevent them from racking up courses that will not ultimately count toward their degrees when they switch majors, she said. Once they get to 120 or 130 credit hours, it will be impossible for them to graduate on time, no matter how hard the college pushes them.

Officials at Northridge have started working with students earlier in their studies to persuade premeds or business majors with poor grades to switch into more-appropriate programs. For instance, liberal-studies advisers work with those in the business department to identify struggling students in their first several semesters and suggest a different path.

Advisers say the conversations with students about their need to change their aspirations can be difficult, and it’s not uncommon for frustrated students to get up and leave.

“When you can finally convince them to switch to the liberal arts or something they can manage, then they’re either very grateful, because they want to be finished, or very resentful,” Ms. Adams said.

Mr. Vitangcol fell into the grateful group. When an adviser recommended a bachelor’s of science in financial services, he jumped at the opportunity. He now says he wishes he had been directed away from the premed track earlier. That the college let him continue on after receiving a D in Chemistry 101, he said, was the “worst idea ever.”

“If anything, I really had a passion for business in the first place,” he said. “I don’t mind being that suit-and-tie kind of guy. It seems such a great persona, you know. Who doesn’t want to wear a suit?”

Against the Grain

But not everybody in the Cal State system is happy about the push to get students through with fewer courses. Part of the point of college, some students and faculty members say, is to give students time to explore their options.

Antonette Co, who has been a student at Northridge since 2004, said she had lost count of how many times she had switched majors. She, too, started out on the premed track as a biology major, but she eventually ended up as double major in child development and psychology after she discovered that “science wasn’t for me.”

Getting through college is about more than passing through an academic program, she says. In her six years as a student, she said, she has learned about what kind of leader she wants to be after graduation. More-stringent graduation requirements would have cut that process short.

“This is a point in your life where you’re posed with a lot of questions, about your faith, about your morals,” Ms. Co said. “You need to be given the opportunity to test those to see who you really are, and it’s really scary to not see those options or opportunities available” for others.

Besides, she said, many of the courses that students most need for graduation are full. Course shortages have plagued campuses throughout the Cal State system during the past year as officials try to find a way to absorb one of the largest cuts in state support in the university’s history.

Several other students agreed, saying that if officials wanted students to graduate faster, they should figure out a way to offer more sections. “They’re trying to push us through, but they’re not offering the classes to help us get through,” said Steven Shapiro, another high-unit Northridge student who said he had to schedule courses around part-time jobs at Wells Fargo and Outback Steakhouse.

Administrators argued that in most cases, there were plenty of courses, and that students who ended up with large numbers of credits typically had other issues that caused them to stay longer in college. “Most of them follow a path that makes sense. Some of them don’t, and I don’t think they can blame us for that,” said Maureen Rubin, director of undergraduate studies at Northridge.

But officials on some campuses acknowledged that the system’s focus on super seniors does have its trade-offs. “We don’t want to say, Don’t take this class, stop learning,” said Dennis Jaehne, who has helped organize super-senior programs at San Jose State University. “It goes against the grain in a way, especially among the faculty.”

The issue is determining what is legitimate, serious exploration on the student’s part and what is just wasted space, said Mr. Jaehne, associate vice president for undergraduate studies at San Jose.

“We’re not really set up to determine the difference between the two,” he said. “We haven’t charted it out. That’s the new growth industry, how to detect this, how to sniff this out. That’s what we’re wrestling with.”

For college students, the line between decision and indecision can be razor-thin. Even Mr. Vitangcol, the Northridge student who is happily finishing his degree in financial services, says he’s still open to new fields of study.

“I’m actually more interested in entertainment,” he said. “Actually, entertainment or music would be fine with me. But I will tell you one thing: My dream job is actually to become an anchorman for ESPN. There you go, that’s what I was looking for. Just be on one of those cool sports shows, have a catchphrase.”

Graduating right away still doesn’t sound like a good idea, he said.

“I actually have 12 units left, and I could graduate in the fall, but I’m not trying to rush it,” he said. “Recession-wise, I’m not trying to rush it.”

By Josh Keller

The Chronicle of Higher Education
May 2, 2010