When student body President Frank Harrison wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in Feb. 1’s Oracle, he asked, “Why cite (four-year graduation rates) in a University with a large, non-traditional part-time population?” It’s a good question, but it brings up issues that most universities in South and Central Florida still ignore.

Take a recent report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: it states that more than a third of undergraduates at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and Nova Southeastern finish in under six years, but fewer than 16 percent of FAU students graduate in four. At Florida International University, 20 percent of students graduate in four years, but 48 percent graduate in six. Only one school in South Florida – an area that includes USF – has a graduation rate of above 50 percent in four years. The only reason the University of Miami can claim such high retention and graduation rates is because it has focused on improving those areas for the past 15 years. According to Danette Gerald, a senior research associate for an education research and policy organization called the Education Trust, those numbers present a problem.

“Most don’t finish until five or six years, and of course many never finish at all,” she said.

However, Gerald fails to really identify what’s wrong with that. Sure, students who take “too long” lose a portion of their working lives by staying in school. But prolonged unemployment can last much longer than two years. In fact, many people turn to universities and technical schools to retrain and “bear the bear” when the market isn’t producing jobs.

Not only that, but Harrison’s objections to graduation rates as a measure of university success is echoed in a document prepared by the Florida Board of Governors in October 2004.

“Graduation rates … sometimes divert attention from the stronger Measure One – degrees granted – which is less subject to being gamed and represents real human beings walking across stages with diplomas in hand.”

It’s simple: Graduation rates are a problematic measure because they don’t factor in some very common college experiences. Years spent abroad, breaks in one’s college career due to family or medical concerns and changed majors are just a few reasons a student might take more than the “normal” four years to attain a degree.

Not everyone can take 15 credit hours a semester and graduate in four years. That doesn’t mean there’s a problem, it means life is competing with school. That might mean students take longer than four years to graduate, but even if it takes a student a decade to attain a degree, he or she will be better off than never attaining one at all.