Six is the new four

Words by shailee koranne

photo by hana nikcevic

The four-year timeline is an unrealistic and unfair expectation of students

By the time I reached grade 12, I was only taking classes I liked and knew I was good at. This meant that I hardly had to put in any effort to pull in a low-90s average. Having been raised in a family that values success in education, I have always been a good student. Even though university proved to be much more difficult than high school, I coasted through first and second year with a high 60s/low 70s average, more or less content with those grades. And then I hit rock bottom.

Rock bottom is a bad place—there’s no question about it. Mental illness was something I had struggled with for years, but it had never quite consumed me until I was in my third year at Victoria College.

Third year was my personal hell. Outside of taking the prescribed five classes per semester, I was interning at a major media outlet, editing a section of The Strand, and doing communications for VUSAC. All of these things were supposed to be fun; yet almost every day, it took me an hour to get out of bed. I slept for most of the day, skipped almost every single lecture, unless there was an assignment due, and was late for my job almost daily.

My grandmother had a stroke, and in the absence of my mother, who went to India for a few weeks to care for her own mother, I was doing more work at home. I was stretched so thin I was starting to fall apart, but I felt as though I had to keep going. It didn’t help that everyone I knew was also incredibly involved in extracurriculars and didn’t seem to be struggling. I felt like I had no excuse.

Instead of cutting down on my extracurriculars or choosing to slow down in any way, I continued to push myself because I felt the pressure to stay “on track.” I found myself feeling awful because, try as I might, I couldn’t get out of bed or get excited about anything, and I woke up and went to sleep with a weight on my chest that I couldn’t bear. It all culminated in me being called into a meeting with the registrar to discuss my academic standing and, after I finished bawling my eyes out in front of a woman I had never met before, I realized just how hard the year had been for me. I used all of my late withdrawal allowance in third year, dropping all but three classes—one of which I ended up failing, and two of which I passed with meagre Cs. I got 1.0 credit in all of third year, and it felt horrible.

I realized, having taken only 4.0 credits in first and second year, that at the end of three years at UofT, when most of my peers had 15 credits, I only had 9. Graduating at the same time as the people I started frosh week with was not going to be possible. However, it shouldn’t have taken until I reached this point to realize that four years to complete undergrad is unrealistic—not just for me, but generally.

The four-year plan may have worked a couple of decades ago for more people than it does now because the livable wage corresponded better to the price of education. However, in the past few years, education has become disproportionately expensive—putting most students from even the socioeconomic brackets that are accustomed to financial security in the position of having to work during the year.

This plan is founded on the assumption that everyone has the reliability of the physical and mental ability to be able to take five courses a semester. It assumes that people can afford to spend upwards of $8000 annually on tuition, not including the additional costs of textbooks, class materials, computers, transit, and housing—and the assumption that the only thing students do all day is go to class and do homework.

I was stretched so thin I was starting to

fall apart, but I felt as though I had

to keep going.

 

The four-year plan does not account for students with disabilities, students who cannot afford tuition and must find employment, students who are raising children or taking care of family members, and all sorts of factors that, when pooled together, would show us that a huge majority of students do not graduate in four years. Almost everyone I know has a part-time job, and I also know many people who are completing their degrees part-time over much more than four years.

So, why do we still expect them, and ourselves, to do so?

When I tell people that I’m doing my degree over five years, they say “oh!” and raise their eyebrows like they cannot fathom how someone may need more than four years to finish their degree. In the same vein, you might be thinking, “Okay, if a student wants to take more than four years, let them! Why is it a big deal?”

It’s a big deal because the social expectation we place on university and college students is still very much the same, regardless of how many students are taking more than four years’ time. Even though more and more students are starting to finish their degrees over five, six, or even more than seven years—a concept which may seem completely foreign to some—the onus of responsibility is placed on those students, and they are still seen as the exception to the norm.

The pressure that is placed on students to complete school in accordance with the four-year model is an institutional and societal pressure that is completely unreasonable. No one can predict the kinds of things that come up in life that may require us to take a break from our educations, or make them a lesser priority. For the most part, the four-year model is one that only allows a “timely” graduation for students who have the privilege of being able-bodied and financially secure, among other privileges.

As a society, we should be taking steps to make post-secondary education more accessible to marginalized groups, as well as actually accounting for them once they enter university or college programmes. We should stop lauding the idea of working ourselves to the bone and recognize that being busy all the time is not good for us. We should be less harsh on ourselves and on each other, while making an effort not to think of finishing our programmes in four years—or however many years are prescribed to us—as “normal.”

A degree is a degree, regardless of whether you take four years or eight years to obtain it, and regardless of whether you get it right after high school or in your forties. So, you might as well take care of yourself in the process.