The Pros and Cons of Taking 5 Years to Graduate

February 24, 2011 | posted by Tia Peterson.

5 years to graduateWhen most students enter a four-year undergraduate degree program, I have no doubt that they actually intend on graduating in four years. There are some programs that are known for taking longer than that – such as music and at some schools, science and education – but students in most other majors are fairly certain that with a full course load each semester, graduating in four years will not be an issue.

Somewhere along the way, for some students, it just takes longer than that. Students who take 5 years can benefit from the extra year by gaining maturity, experience, and clarity, but there are financial and emotional consequences that need to be considered as well.

Carrie Cheadle, a Sport and Exercise Mental Skills Coach, graduated from Sonoma State University after taking 5 years to get her undergraduate degree (1992-1997). “I could have done it in four years, but decided to attend for one extra year. During that last year of college I had some of my greatest opportunities for growth both in and out of the classroom… I wouldn’t have wanted to take five years for my graduate degree, but for my undergraduate I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t attended that fifth year.”

Not everyone, though, had such an optimistic response. “I took 5 years to graduate,” said Carla Ulbrich, 1990 graduate of UNC Greensboro and author of How Can You Not Laugh at a Time Like This? “Mostly because I transferred after my 2nd year. I went to a junior college my first 2 years and graduated with an associate’s degree. When I transferred after getting an AFA, I lost a lot of credits and all my friends. It’s hard to make friends showing up as a junior. If I had it to do over, I would do it differently.

Still, there may be hidden benefits, if taking 5 years is well-planned.

Dan Nainan, a comedian, actor, and voice-over artist, talked about saving money and gaining experience. “College took five years, and with a great reason,” said Dan. “That is because I took three semesters off on the University of Maryland’s co-op program to work for IBM. It was the greatest thing I ever did, because it not only earned me enough money to pay for my own college, but it also got me nearly a year and half of work experience, which put me head and shoulders above other graduates! I was able to make it in five years by taking summer school every summer in between.”

Lauren Miller, a 2009 graduate of the University of San Diego, used her 5 years in undergraduate college to earn 2 degrees and spend time in Europe. “While I did graduate in a tough economic time and financial it cost me more for the extra year, I would not have been able to travel Europe as I did when I did my study abroad,” said Lauren. ” And that is an experience I have treasured and has meant the most to me.”

I also took 5 years to graduate. Much of the reason for that is that I changed my major 5 times and transferred after my third year at the first school. Looking back, eight years after college graduation, was it the smartest idea? Here are what I consider the pros:

  • When I graduated, I had a great degree and landed a job within two weeks. If I hadn’t changed my major so many times and found the right one for me, I don’t think I would have been so lucky.

  • I ended up with two solid years of internship experience. That further helped me understand what I wanted to do after graduation.

  • I took my classes much more seriously, because by the last year, I was mature enough to realize just how much each course was costing me. I ended each semester my last year with high marks.

The clarity that I graduated with is priceless, and I just don’t know that I would have had it without that all important last year.

There are two sides to every story, of course. The cons of taking 5 years to graduate were

  • Most of my friends graduated in 2002. I was still in college while they were working and making money.

  • That last year tacked on a lot of expense. Had I graduated in four years, I would have saved a lot in the necessary student loans.

The Cost of an Extra Year

That first con isn’t so bad, but the second one could have been avoided had I had any idea what I wanted to do when I started college. The cost of making up your mind in college as opposed to before college is a hefty one.

If you do plan on taking your time in school, or if by year three or four, you realize that graduation on time isn’t going to be a possibility, you need to have a good plan to finance another year. Consider options, and work extra hard at getting that last year free if possible, with grants and/or scholarships. If you do need to borrow money to make it happen, make sure it’s at the lowest possible rate and that you have a plan for paying it back.

Your Turn

What do you think about the 5 year college “plan?” What are the pros and cons, in your opinion?

Image Credit: Kyle James


  • Felicia Gopaul @ Certified Financial Planner practictioner

    I am a big proponent of student’s having some idea of what they want to major in before they go away to college for exactly the reason you mentioned: the financial cost of another year in college. I’m starting to think that some students would also benefit from a gap year before going to college. It gives them the opportunity to mature and/or experience life before taking on the pressure of college. What do you think of that idea?

  • Tia Peterson

    Hi Felicia – I think it’s a great idea. I actually took a semester off during my second year. I probably should have taken more time off than that. There were a lot of external pressures to go back to school even though I didn’t want to.

    I believe high school guidance counselors should help with this decision. College is such a big investment, and it doesn’t need to be done immediately. Students should be made aware of their options and to realize that taking time before going to school isn’t a bad choice. It’s a great choice. College will always be there.

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