Feeling Stuck in Your Studies

Need longer than four years to escape the four-year university? As these Sac State students show, you’re not alone

(Photo by Sharlene Phou)

Kirsten Brazell-Ebert, a senior music education major, has been attending college for six years and has switched majors twice in that time. She started off as a Japanese language major at Shasta Community College, but soon realized that she would be behind when she transferred to a four-year because her college only offered two semesters of Japanese.

Brazell-Ebert thought it would be best to go for a different major instead. She loved art and could work her way around Adobe Photoshop, which led her to study graphic design, but she found no luck there as well.

“I like graphic design, computers hate me — I hate computers,” Brazell-Ebert said. “It was also very competitive, so I would be miserable trying to produce something just to compete with someone else.”

Then something happened, something that solidified her decision to pursue music education. Brazell-Ebert was in a choir class when a classmate asked her to help learn a part they were about to sing. When she saw how her classmate was able to grasp what she had taught, Brazell-Ebert said it just felt right and that teaching music, specifically voice, was something that she wanted to do.

Brazell-Ebert transferred to Sac State as a music education major and has acquired two jobs where she teaches music on- and off-campus to students. Although she has found success in her new major, Brazell-Ebert can’t help but feel like she’s stuck in college, even though she is expected to graduate next spring. She said because she was unsure of what she wanted, she spent years in other majors that could have been used to focus on one. As a result, she’s behind on the major she’s settled on.

Students have always been given a set amount a time to finish their schooling. Schools explicitly suggest that after you complete elementary and middle school, you should earn your high school diploma in four years.

Once that is completed, students spend another four years in college to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in a field that you excel in. Education is squeezed into this allotted amount of time, leaving almost no margin for error.

A recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that college students spent 5.1 years on average to earn a bachelor’s degree. “The time required for successful degree attainment could be influenced by the pathway the student followed as well as by factors, such as stop outs and less than full-time enrollment status,” according to the report.

Marissa Murko, a senior accounting and journalism major, has been attending Sac State for eight years and is expected to graduate this December.

Murko enjoys creative writing and has been working on a novel that she hopes to publish one day. She said she chose to major in journalism instead of creative writing because a degree isn’t necessarily required to publish her novel. But as she began taking upper division courses, she didn’t like how “newsy” journalistic writing was. Feeling unfulfilled as a journalism major, she decided to take on accounting as a second major.

“My dad’s an accountant, so he kind of pushed me to go into accounting,” Murko said. “It’s hard. [There are] a lot of math and math concepts.”

In addition to taking classes for both majors, Murko worked full-time in the past two years at two Subway locations. She attended only two classes for about three semesters in order to accommodate her work schedule — “every day, seven days a week,” Murko said.

Much like Brazell-Ebert, Murko explored different areas of study. She took the risk of trying other courses rather than sticking to one major. However, unlike Brazell-Ebert, Murko didn’t abandon her first major. Instead, she became a double major and also took on a minor in business in order to satisfy her journalism requirements.

At one point, Murko stopped out one semester to go to beauty school and acquired a manicurist license. She said it was something she wanted to try since she liked doing manicures in high school.

“Stop out” is a term used to describe the instance when students decide to take time off from college only to return whenever they feel ready to. There are many reasons for stopping out such as working more hours to pay bills, taking care of the family or exploring other areas of interest.

Percentage of bachelor’s degree Earners from four-year public institutions by total enrolled time and number of stop-outs (N=1,022,446)* (Chart via National Student Clearinghouse)

NSC reported in its study that 62.2 percent of students at a public four-year institution finished their degree without any stop out. Meanwhile, 21 percent had one stop out and 16.7 percent had two or more stop outs.

Murko finished up her last semester at Sac State with The State Hornet, a student-run news organization, meeting her final requirement to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Murko was a staff writer for the Culture section and worked on a story every week. She said the hardest part of the job was waiting to hear back from sources and coming up with story ideas to pitch to her editor.

“It’s been a long journey, but it was worth it,” Murko said. “I wanted to give up so many times, like I wanted to give up when I failed one of my [accounting] classes — but I repeated it. It’s not like I wasn’t trying — it’s just the teacher was really hard and the exams were very brutal.”

After graduating, Murko plans on going into accounting as an entry-level auditor. She wants to set aside time to write by working on her novel or freelancing. In the future, Murko hopes to take on her next hurdle — the Uniform Public Accountant Examination. Once she passes the exam, she would be awarded with a Certified Public Accountant license.

Looking back her eight years at Sac State, Murko said that it might have been better to just minor in journalism. On the bright side, she said that having a double major may make her stand out more to potential employers. Murko also said that she gained more experience, had a lot of time to grow and figure out what she wanted to do professionally during her time at Sac State.

“[My years of study here were] not a waste,” Murko said. “But at the same I wish it would have went a lot quicker. I like Sac State, but I’m ready to leave because I’ve been here forever.”

Like most universities, Sac State encourages students to complete their degrees in four years. It has recently implemented a new tool called KEYS to Degree, also known as “Kit to Empower Your Success,” that compiles existing resources such as the class scheduler and the financial aid meter into one “kit” that students can use to see what requirements they need to graduate and keep track of that progress.

KEYS to Degree is among many resources that can be used to help students be aware of what classes they need, how long they are eligible for financial aid and major advising. However, this is more helpful to students who know exactly what path they want to follow. Students often jump from one major to another to find the right fit for them.

There are other factors that may hinder students’ ability to commit to their studies such as family obligations or taking time away for work.

NSC concluded from its findings that very few students finish their degree in four years — something widely held as the “normal time” to a degree. The results “clearly demonstrate the need for the higher education community and policymakers to acknowledge the new normal and the fact that traditional time frames will not work for every college student,” according to the NSC report.

Students are expected to follow traditional time frames to be considered successful, according to the NSC report. This means that those who take longer to complete their degree are sometimes viewed as unsuccessful because of their untimeliness.

The NSC stated in its report that by acknowledging and accepting the reality of students’ nontraditional pathways, better public policies can be adopted, which should ultimately increase student success.

Laura Colfescu, a junior english major has been in college for five years and says she hopes to graduate in spring 2018. Prior to Sac State, she attended Southern New Hampshire University, where she studied culinary arts. After a culinary internship, she decided that cooking wasn’t something she wanted to do professionally and switched majors when she came to Sac State.

“I was actually doing a culinary four-year program and did the internship after two years,” Colfescu said. “[After the internship] I decided to just get my associate degree and call it quits.”

Colfescu is currently working as a tutor, she hopes to get her teaching credential and become a high school english teacher. She stopped out one semester to figure out her career goals. “I was just trying to make sure that when I figured everything out, I wasn’t going to be wasting money,” Colfescu said. “I worked for that time to get enough money and made sure I knew where I wanted to be.”

At first, Colfescu said, she hated being in school for so long. She felt behind in her studies compared to her peers.

“When I started my fifth year I think [I felt stuck in college],” Colfescu said. “All my classmates from high school were graduating [college] and I was like, ‘I’m the only one!’ And then I realized I wasn’t.”

When Brazell-Ebert arrived at Sac State, she was told by an academic advisor that she had enough units to graduate. She declined the suggestion, saying that she didn’t have a major to graduate with. “So that’s one of the reasons why I’m still here,” Brazell-Ebert said. “Because I had too many units, but at the same time I didn’t have the right units.”

In addition to not having the right units, some units that she took at her community college did not transfer over. Brazell-Ebert became frustrated by general education requirements and felt that those not related to her major are unnecessary. Although she understands how useful they could be, Brazell-Ebert said that she would rather focus her time working towards her major.

“Courses you’ve already taken in high school, they require you to take yet again, those are the redundant ones in my opinion,” Brazell-Ebert said. “You’ve already taken them multiple times over. What more do you want me to learn in a course I’m not interested in?”

Once she earns her degree, Brazell-Ebert says, she hopes to open her own studio where she can teach private lessons. It’s a big dream, so she says she is also thinking about working at a musical instruments shop while planning the opening of her studio. “What’s not to love there, right?” Brazell-Ebert said of the prospect. “I have simple plans. I don’t aspire to be the next onstage opera star.”

Brazell-Ebert said that the advantage of more years spent in college is being able to spread a lighter load of classes evenly. The disadvantage is the limited amount of financial aid students can receive.

“If they can afford to, [students] should take it at their own pace,” Brazell-Ebert said. “Some students try to take on too much work and they can’t do it. It’s just too much pressure.”