Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

If college is meant for exploring degrees and finding the perfect career, we should normalize five-year graduation plans. 

College tasks students with becoming independent adults. During our time here, we strive to achieve personal accomplishments and build our resumes. Whether it’s running for leadership positions or trying to land that exclusive internship, a lot of us share a common goal: to finish our undergraduate studies within four years.

Pursuing an education, building connections and gaining professional experiences are important and necessary. But it’s difficult to maximize peak success with these endeavors in four short years. College is designed to explore majors, discover career paths and transition into adulthood. It’s a journey, not a sprint into the real world. 

Compressing these valuable skills and educational experiences into just four years is insufficient time to develop them to their full extent.

Insistence on following this path can stem from advisors, peers, parents and professors. There’s a general expectation that 120 credits can and should be earned in four years or less.

The pressure has given rise to a misguided notion that students are obligated to finish their undergraduate studies within a strict four-year timeframe. This has inadvertently created a negative stigma on those who opt for a different path.

This stigma is toxic and counterproductive to the entire purpose of higher education. 

The traditional full-time college schedule doesn’t take into account students who have to allocate their time toward other responsibilities. For those who work, commute or have a family to take care of, maintaining a four-year graduation trajectory can be even more difficult.

With five-year graduation plans normalized, students would be more free to make decisions about their future. Switching degrees, declaring a minor or double major and taking on a full-time internship are all things that students should be encouraged to do to match the right career field. Taking an extra year to do these things shouldn’t be taboo.

Today, post pandemic, there are unique challenges associated with college. Increased tuition rates and a job market more competitive than ever makes students’ future prospects bleak. And it’s just getting worse. Students need to understand that it’s better taking the time now to evaluate themselves than to face early burnout in a field they don’t actually belong in.

The pandemic acted as an additional barrier for students to reach their full potential. The deprivation of in-person opportunities related to school, jobs and other involvements set back a whole generation of students.

Most college enrollment comes from recent high school graduates – a population that’s feeling more pressure to make premature decisions about their future. With a five-year graduation timeline, incoming freshmen could breathe easier while navigating their first semester.

Today’s college costs are also making students take on heavier financial burdens than in decades prior. Two-thirds of students cover their own tuition, so taking on a part-time or full-time job has become essential.

Enrolling in up to 12 credits each semester while balancing work responsibilities is completely reasonable. But earning 12 credits each semester isn’t enough to graduate in four years. Normalizing a five-year plan supports this lifestyle by prioritizing financial costs and escaping years of debt.

Mental health is another key aspect of this multifaceted issue. More than 60 percent of college students meet the criteria for at least one mental health problem — a significant increase from a decade ago. With anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges taking a toll on students’ well-being, the pressure to graduate in four years can cause major setbacks.

Normalizing five-year graduation plans would help the most vulnerable college students feel less anxious about meeting this socially constructed graduation quota.

Graduating from college can be a major asset in a student’s professional careers. The majority of new jobs require a college degree and the average graduate earns $27,000 more annually than those who only have a high school diploma.

Actors who play a role in guiding students’ college and career paths need to take a step back and let students make their own decisions. Impeding on their preferred path of study can end up doing more harm than good. 

Students must also take responsibility by realizing that adding an additional semester or two in their graduation plans is acceptable. When the degree is earned matters much less than earning the degree itself.

Hunter Craig is a senior public policy major. He can be reached at .