In for four, out in five: the “victory lap”


Students have noted a trend that is emerging on college campuses everywhere. While students once graduated in four years, it now takes many five years or more to graduate.

The reasons why are varied, but here at K-State, a few reasons and debunked stigmas stand out about the “fifth year senior.”

Just how common are fifth year seniors?

“I can’t give exact numbers, but I would say that the majority of my advisees who are graduating in 2014-15 (including December graduates) needed more than four years to complete their degrees,” said Anne Phillips, an adviser for the English department who advises roughly 30-40 students a semester.

Phillips noticed a common reason why most of her students needed extra time.

“The primary reason they need five years is that they have changed majors at least once,” Phillips said.

Harley Walker, a fifth-year senior majoring in criminology and psychology with a minor in women’s studies, has changed her major several times.

“I changed it from Business Administration to Physical Education at Emporia State University, to Business Administration, to my current major: criminology,” Walker said.

Major changes, a common part of college, is the reason for some of these extra years are needed. Due to general education requirements in different colleges, a student may have to “start over” when switching to a major in a different college.

“It’s (changing your major) huge, because the new major has new basic requirements,” said Carol Franko, associate professor and director of Undergraduate Studies and Graduate Facility in the English department.

Franko, Phillips and Walker agreed some other reasons students stay an extra year included study abroad, dual majors, credit transfer issues (this often affects transfer students and students in the military) and not having a mapped-out graduation plan.

“I think good advising is essential to keeping on track,” Phillips said. “We need to know what courses can fulfill requirements. Sometimes, a single course in my department can meet three different requirements, including overlay requirements, and I try and point that out when I am meeting with students. As long as our students are keeping us informed of their successes and challenges, we can also help them find tutoring or other support systems on campus, to help them maintain their progress.”

It’s easy for students to blame others rather than themselves for not graduating in four years; however, Walker admitted to some things she could have done to help herself.

“I could have chose a major and stuck with it,” Walker said. “I could have also taken more hours to get through faster, and take summer classes.”

Many students can relate to Walker. For others, however, not being able to get into classes or a lack of a graduation plan could be the reason for their fifth year at school.

“Some departments have very rigid programs of study, so that students know exactly what courses they need each semester,” Phillips said. “Others are less likely to legislate every schedule. Students seem to want some kind of long-range planning, but it can be difficult for departments to offer exactly the right courses, sometimes. Faculty take sabbaticals or go on leave or win grants that require their absence from the classroom. Other situations arise. In (the English) department, we devote extra time and attention to making sure we can compensate for these situations, and we also try to be responsive to enrollment demands.”

The “fifth-year senior” stigma

The first assumption about fifth-year seniors is that they take five years to graduate; however, this is not always true.

“A fifth-year senior is defined as any student who has more than 120 credit hours,” Robert Auten, faculty member in the Registrar’s Office, said.

If a student has more than 120 hours and has only been registered for four years, he or she is technically a fifth-year senior.

Another stigma is that people are not smart enough to finish in four years. Despite the prevalence of this idea, Walker said she doesn’t believe it.

“We’re still going to school to graduate,” Walker said. “Even if it might take us longer, we have not given up and we decided to finish.”

While many students said they feel there are stigmas about fifth-year seniors, others disagree.

“I don’t think there’s a stigma about fifth-year seniors except, perhaps, among some parents who would like to be finished paying for school,” Phillips said.

Regardless of what one thinks of them, fifth-year seniors are here to stay. Auten said that in the spring of 2014, there were roughly 4,443 students who had over 120 credit hours, and of those students about 1,686 could have potentially graduated that year.

“Even when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, most of my peers were taking five years to finish,” Phillips said.

Whether a student finishes college in three years, stays for seven or goes on or off for a while, one thing will never change: there will always be a mixture of students at K-State.