SUNY Buffalo: Degrees in 4 Years or the Rest Free

The University at Buffalo, one of the largest institutions in New York state with about 29,000 undergraduate and graduate students, is among the latest colleges to guarantee a four-year degree

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    If recent history is a guide, less than half of the freshmen arriving on college campuses as part of the class of 2016 this fall will live up to that billing.

    More likely, they'll need until 2017. Even more likely, 2018.

    A four-year college degree in many ways has become more suggestion than reality, to the chagrin of institutions whose reputations, rankings and recruiting prowess are tied to their success in handing out diplomas.

    So as a way to improve the graduation rate, universities are promising students a four-year roadmap in exchange for a commitment they'll stay on track. The University at Buffalo, one of the largest institutions in New York state with about 29,000 undergraduate and graduate students, is among the latest to do so.

    "We keep calling it a four-year degree," said A. Scott Weber, UB's vice provost of education, "so it seems reasonable to think about programs that reignite that discussion."

    The American Association of State Colleges and Universities doesn't keep a tally of how many schools offer such degree guarantees but sees the number growing. Along with New York's state colleges in Fredonia and Oswego, the University of the Pacific in California, University of Minnesota, Midland University in Nebraska and Iowa State offer them, as well as such smaller, private institutions as Virginia Wesleyan College, Juniata College in Pennsylvania and Buffalo's own Medaille College.

    About 38 percent of college students who were freshmen in 2004 earned a bachelor's degree in four years from the institution where they began college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 58 percent graduated within six years. High graduation rates help raise the profile of colleges competing for would-be students, who can look to rankings compiled by publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education and U.S. News and World Report that include such statistics in their ratings.

    "This issue of college completion is a big deal and it's getting a lot of focus, as it should be, from President Obama to state governors on down," said Daniel Hurley, the association's director of state relations and policy analysis.

    At Buffalo, its Finish in Four initiative begins this fall. Interested incoming freshmen will sign a pledge promising to keep in touch with an adviser, home in on a major early on and put academics over outside work. For its part, the university will promise a four-year course guide, help get students a seat in the classes they need and let them know if they're falling short along the way.

    The kicker: If a student upholds his or her end of the bargain but still can't graduate in four years, UB will pay the tuition and fees for the work that remains. Tuition runs $5,270 per year for New York residents and about $14,300 for students from elsewhere.

    The chancellor for New York's 64-school state university system, known as SUNY, has named college completion the system's top priority for the year.

    "It is wasting time and money to spend five or six years to finish a degree that is designed for four years," said New York City high school senior Tiffany Hong, part of the next crop of college freshmen who this spring are receiving acceptance letters and cementing their plans for fall. Hong will enter UB in September with plans for a career in speech and hearing.

    Though she always assumed she'd graduate in four years, she said she was a bit overwhelmed when she first studied her degree requirements.

    "College is totally different from high school so I think this is going to be an extra help for me in planning my schedule," she said.

    While guarantees won't address all of the issues that hold up four-year graduations — like students switching majors, choosing dual majors or working full-time jobs — they do get students and schools planning well ahead. That's more important than ever at a time when budget constraints have forced colleges to curtail the frequency and numbers of sections offered for certain courses, educators said.

    SUNY campuses promote online alternatives to students shut out of brick-and-mortar courses, but that's not always an option.

    "Our students have to be a lot more careful about planning and sometimes it really is impossible to get something in a particular semester," said David Lavalle, SUNY's vice chancellor for academic affairs.

    Sixty or so miles from Buffalo sits the SUNY campus at Fredonia, the first public college in the state to offer to pay the extra tuition of students who, through no fault of their own, don't graduate on time.

    "In 15 years, we have never had to pay a penny on the guarantee," said President Dennis Hefner, who initiated the program during his first year leading the 5,400-student college. Its four-year graduation rate is now 55 percent.

    Hefner said fewer than half of freshman sign up for the guarantee, crediting the college's reputation for prioritizing student access to classes. Among them is Jessica Mothersell, who signed up with the program after arriving at Fredonia last semester to study education.

    "I thought, 'I don't have anything to lose,'" she said. Her parents were enthusiastic, especially with her younger brother planning to start college in two years.

    "Academic advisement is crucial to student success," said her mother, Mary Beth Mothersell, a former college counselor. "It is also a two-way street. This process promises that Jessica will be appropriately advised so she is taking the classes that she needs to take and is on target for graduation."