Stats obscure complex realities of graduation

Hannah Bartman

The generic eight-semester set-up of college is a path most commonly followed by Whitman students. However, there exists a small fraction of students whose intellectual pursuits take them more than or fewer than eight semesters.

Whitman’s ability to cater to the needs of its students ensures that any track a student takes in his or her academic career is a personal decision and not due to an ineptitude of the school. Neal Christopherson from the Office of Institutional Research compiled statistics between the years of 2001-2007, in which 2615 students entered Whitman as first-years.

Of these students, 80.8 percent graduated in four years and 6.1 percent (159 students) graduated in five years. The remaining either graduated in six years or more, had their graduation pending or were enrolled in the 3-2 program.

“Saying a student graduated in ‘five years’ is a bit misleading, as there are a variety of reasons why students take more than four years to graduate, and most who do not graduate ‘on time’ do not attend Whitman full-time for more than eight semesters,” said Christopherson in his report.

The reasons for graduating in more than four years did not have a common thread. Of the 188 students who took more than four years to graduate, 47 percent had graduation requirements pending or were involved in the 3-2 program. This would usually mean that the student had one requirement unfulfilled that they would fill off-campus. Then 32 percent took one semester leave from Whitman. Overall, only 0.9 percent (12 students) of students were fully enrolled in Whitman for more than eight semesters. On the opposite spectrum, only four percent (105 students) graduated in fewer than eight semesters.

Junior Katy Witmer is a current Whitman student who plans to graduate one semester early. She entered Whitman planning to do the Colombia 3-3 law program, but has since discontinued this dream. She now wishes to graduate early in order to “take a break from the academic sphere and try something unconventional.” Keeping her options open, Witmer is considering interning at a law firm, working in a monastery or living in Portland for a year.

Even though she took the regular schedule of four classes per semester, Witmer has enough AP credits to be considered a senior. This allows her to graduate after the fall semester of 2013 as a history major.

“[Graduating early] is better in one way because of financial reasons,” she said. “Also I feel like if you have an idea for what you want to do after college then it is a good option.”

Having an excess of credits also allows for students to take a semester break from Whitman. This is true for gap-year first-year student Eve Penberthy, who is considering taking the spring semester of next year off.

“Already this year part of me is really restless. After taking the year off last year and working with different organizations, I just kind of want to go and do that,” said Penberthy. “At the same time I absolutely love it here, which is part of the reason why I don’t know if I’ll end up taking a semester off. I might just want to take advantage of the time I have here.”

With her semester off Penberthy considers traveling, perhaps to Tanzania, or working somewhere in the United States. The isolation of the Walla Walla community is a staple of Whitman College, which is why students who have done a fair amount of traveling, like Penberthy, find it difficult to stay on campus for long. Penberthy also shares the feeling of Witmer that taking a semester off from Whitman is tempting because it would save money. Ultimately, having the freedom to explore in a realistic setting outside of the Whitman bubble is an enticing option.

Whitman’s supportive and flexible academic set-up allows for Whitman students to branch out from the conventional eight-semester track and explore their options outside of Walla Walla. The varied reasons for either taking more or fewer than the eight semesters expresses the individuality of students at Whitman and the freedom they have to express that individuality.