The curse of the super senior
What’s faster than a speeding PVTA bus, older than most TA’s, and able to pass a class without actually attending it? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not Tom Welling.
I’m talking about the super seniors, University of Massachusetts (UMass) students who stay beyond the expected four years needed to graduate. They walk among us, dressed as ordinary undergraduates, and this fall they will impact everything from class sizes to UMass economic growth.
According to the Office of Institutional Research (OIR), approximately 14.7 percent of undergraduates return for a fifth year at UMass, based on enrollment/retention rates for the past ten years. Only 3.2 percent return for a sixth year.
Being a super senior does not give you the power to leap the concrete roadblock known as the Fine Arts Center in a single bound. Super seniors can’t fly, they don’t read minds, and if any more of them start donning spandex tights, I’m going to start wearing blinders to class. But Super seniors are super at feeding the UMass economy. The longer we stay, the more tuition we pay, the more coffee and books and Minuteman t-shirts we’ll buy. All of which is great for UMass, especially given the $12 million budget cut proposed last year.
So the question is: is what’s good for UMass also good for its students?
For some students, the answer is yes. Taking an extra year can be a good way to spread out a difficult course load, or make up for a bad semester. Junior anthropology major Ben Frenchette says that he is a “likely super senior” after switching majors and taking time off for financial reasons.
“Of course I’d rather not pay for an extra term,” says Frenchette, “but I also don’t want to take the 20-plus credits per semester I’d need to graduate on time.”
For others, what begins as an extra year at UMass can turn into a never-ending undergraduate nightmare.
Art history major Ryan Subozc has been an undergraduate at UMass since Fall 2003. The 26-year-old Subozc cites changing degree requirements and a lack of class availability as major factors in her decision to stay more than four years.
“I took a semester off and when I came back, the requirements for my major had changed,” says Subozc. “I had to repeat some of my classes. Then I found that some of the classes were only available once every two years, or they were only taught by a certain professor.”
Difficulty getting into classes is a hallmark of the UMass undergraduate experience. We all know what it’s like. Scrambling to get onto SPIRE on registration day. Showing up for a class only to be told that there’s a thirty-person waitlist and it won’t be offered again until after you’re supposed to graduate. Large class sizes and a shrinking faculty make it harder to get into the classes we need, and harder to be noticed once we get into them.
“Even simple availability of classes, it’s just not there,” says Subozc. “In a major with small class sizes, like art history, the classes are always flooded. Most people in my major have had to take classes through the five-college system because they just can’t get into the classes they need at UMass.”
Part of the problem is that the University is admitting more students than it has the capacity or resources to teach. Enrollment is going up, but faculty numbers are frozen by budget cuts. In fall 2008, there were 20,308 undergraduates enrolled at UMass, the largest student body in at least thirty years. In fall 1998, only 17,524 undergraduates enrolled at the university.
According to Pat Callahan of the UMass office of news and media relations, “enrollment is going up, and that is planned.” Callahan says it’s important to remember though that the student body fluctuates naturally year-to-year. The enrollment increase is not a conspiracy for the school to get more money from its students.
“The idea is not to get a lot of kids to make a lot of money, but to find a student body that fits the university,” he says.
UMass administrators aren’t the reincarnation of Snidely Whiplash, twirling their mustaches and plotting how to tie us up while they run off with our money. But that doesn’t change the fact that students have been negatively impacted by the admissions increase, both in the quality of the education they receive and their ability to graduate on time.
On a campus that is stressed, stricken, and generally stretched thin by state-mandated budget cuts, more and more students have to wonder: Is it worth it to stay another year? What’s it going to be like when my friends graduate and I’m still stuck here in Amherst? Exactly how broke am I going to be when I finally get out of here?
It can be stressful, and for some students, devastating. Others see it as a chance to live their UMass years to the fullest. Junior Kasia Letowska, also a potential super senior, is looking forward to a fifth year on campus.
“I love UMass and never want to leave,” she says.
Rachel Dougherty is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.