College students are finding it increasingly difficult to graduate in four years, but Duke students seem to be doing just fine.
Low national graduation rates have raised questions about the optimal way for students to plan their academic careers. Taking on multiple degrees can work in many cases but can also create issues for successful graduation. Duke students buck the national trends, but administrators noted that students should weigh the benefits of one or more majors before choosing to pursue them.
An official letter from the National Commission of Higher Education Attainment last month decried low graduation rates and urged schools to make graduating students on time a priority by expanding the resources and support they have available. One recommendation was to prevent students from completing more than one major in an effort to improve students’ progress toward graduation.
“The number of Americans attending college is at a historic high, but far too many never make it to graduation,” the letter said.
Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education, said he believes that even though it is popular, pursuing multiple majors, minors or certificates should be done with careful consideration.
“Duke is very interested in cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary learning and the last thing we would want to do is limit students on the education track,” he said. “But I do think it’s important that Duke and its students understand that majoring in multiple areas shouldn’t just be seen as collecting merit badges.”
According to the Department of Education, only 40 percent of college students are able to graduate within four years, while only 60 percent graduate within six years. The NCHEA letter notes that budget cuts, decreased support service programs and higher tuition rates have all contributed to low national graduation rates.
Duke, however, does not seem to share these same struggles. According to News and World Report, Duke has a four-year graduation rate of 89 percent, more than double that of the national average.
Bruce Cunningham, assistant vice provost and university registrar, credits this high graduation rate to the qualified and academically driven students that the University accepts each year.
“We also have a terrific support system on campus,” Cunningham said. “Faculty, advisors, deans, student affairs, and staff—all of whom have a part in making sure students make good progress towards their degrees and that any issues are addressed quickly.”
According to the NCHEA report, there are a number of reasons why students do not graduate in four years. Some want a break from a tedious academic schedule, some have medical or family issues and some discover a college that gives them a better fit.
“The support services here are outstanding. This is a very responsive place for students who need help,” said Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag.
Just because students can graduate with multiple degrees, however, does not mean all of them should. Nowicki believes that while many students are suited for multiple degrees, for other students a single degree may be the best choice.
“Duke is always going to support multiple majors, but we want to make sure we help students explore these major options thoughtfully,” he said.
Nowicki noted that other schools struggle to graduate students on time because the demand for classes can be so high. The problem is not that students lack the time needed to fulfill major requirements, he added, but that universities are not offering enough of the required courses to meet student demand.
Duke makes an effort to ensure that the resources and classes are available if students want to pursue multiple degrees, Nowicki said.
Kevin Hogan, a senior majoring in economics, feels lucky to be able to graduate on time without worrying about fulfilling his major requirements on time.
“I didn’t always get the classes I wanted, but there were always classes available that would fulfill requirements.”
Katy Falletta, a senior expecting to graduate with a major in Public Policy, minor in Women’s Studies and certificate in Global Health, agrees that she has not had to worry about fulfilling her graduation requirements in four years.
It may take thoughtful planning and consideration, she noted, but ultimately she was able to get the classes she needed to fulfill the necessary requirements.