Graduating from college is a landmark event, like your initial job or first date.

Students and parents think of college as a four-year journey, but most students in Nebraska’s public colleges and universities fail to finish in that time. This costs them more tuition, it leads to more student loans for some, and it delays starting their careers.

A recent push by the University of Nebraska system has produced a sharp increase in the percentage of NU students who finish in four years. Students have more access to advisers and mentors.

Colleges also know it’s important for a student to find a place to belong on campus. And some colleges are using technology to monitor students’ progress.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the four-year graduation rate improved from 29 percent in 2010 to 39 percent in 2015, according to federal data. The University of Nebraska at Omaha’s rate rose from 14 percent to 20 percent during that period. And the University of Nebraska at Kearney saw a jump from 22 percent to 28 percent.

That trend has continued, administrators at all three schools said, with higher four-year graduation rates in 2017 than in 2015.

There are good reasons for the improvement. Seven years ago, the NU Board of Regents passed a policy in which most students who take a full load of 15 credit hours per semester and 120 in eight semesters will be able to earn a degree after four years.

The policy said “credit creep” led to many programs requiring 125 credit hours or more. This extended the time to graduation for some students.

Two years ago, NU President Hank Bounds announced a Commit to Complete campaign. Bounds said undergraduates should visit their advisers and make a detailed plan to graduate in four years or some other “timely” completion date.

UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said his university has put greater emphasis on academic advising. He said that “we have invested significantly across the university to help drive improved rates. So we’re very serious about that.” He said he wants the rate to continue improving significantly.

Green said, though, that it’s a struggle for some UNL students who have to work while attending college. There is no shame in taking more than four years.

UNL remains behind Iowa State in four-year graduation rate. Iowa State improved from 39 percent to 45 percent during the years in question.

Four-Year Graduation Rates in Nebraska

Reflects percentage who graduate in four years. Year is when student began. Source: U.S. Department of Education, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

College name 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Chadron State 23% 17% 17% 19% 21% 24%
Peru State 18% 19% 11% 15% 13% 18%
Wayne State 27% 25% 23% 24% 25% 28%
UNK 22% 21% 23% 24% 27% 28%
UNO 14% 14% 16% 16% 19% 20%
UNL 29% 32% 33% 33% 36% 39%
Creighton 68% 67% 66% 67% 67% 69%
Iowa State 39% 38% 39% 41% 44% 45%

Amy Goodburn, a senior associate vice chancellor at UNL, provided a report that says UNL has spent $2.5 million since 2012 to expand and create new student success programs.

The programs include First Husker, the First-Year Experience, and Emerging Leaders, all of which help guide students through the early part of their college careers with connections, mentoring and help selecting a major.

Angelica Carlini, who graduated from UNL this month, got through in four years despite having two majors — one in marketing, the other in management.

Carlini, of Grand Island, was a resident assistant in a dormitory, worked part time in a UNL communications office, was in the College of Business’ intensive honors program, and studied abroad one summer in Spain and France. She had some Advanced Placement credits from high school and received some financial help from her parents.

She credited her adviser in the business college, Erin Burnette, with a good bit of her success. “I personally had the best adviser ever,” Carlini said. “I’ve been in her office crying or sharing the best news of my life.

“She laid out my whole four-year plan and then adjusted where needed,” Carlini said.

It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault when a student takes more than four years to graduate. Family members and students get sick. Students change majors. They decide to double major.

Sometimes they’re not quite ready for the academic challenges and the profound change of college life.

Denzell Clements of Omaha had a rough first year and had to drop one or two classes at UNO. It took him five years to graduate, but he did it this spring.

He worked at Walmart and took out student loans. As a Susan T. Buffett Scholar and member of UNO’s Thompson Learning Community, Clements received some solid mentoring.

“I learned how to endure,” said Clements, a singer who majored in music. “Education’s the key to success. Looking back, I came a long way, and I’m at the finish line.”

Some colleges also are trying to maximize technology to keep track of students. Goodburn said UNL this fall will test with some freshmen an electronic system that will promptly notify students and advisers when a student begins to fall off track.

It will also enable advisers and professors to plan and offer the courses students need most.

At UNK, MyBlue instantly tells students when they are enrolling in courses that won’t count toward their degree program. MyBlue is a student records portal that includes adviser information, student records, billing, registration, financial aid, schedules, grades and other things.

UNK has a promotional program called Finish in 4 in which it’s emphasized that students need to take 15 hours a semester to graduate in four years.

UNL has been working for several years to help students develop four-year plans.

Goodburn said that to complete a degree in four years, students need to empty “eight buckets of courses” — one bucket for each semester, typically averaging 15 credit hours.

At Iowa State, which has an initiative called Soar in Four, administrators examine and re-evaluate courses that have a high number of drops, failures and withdrawals. Sometimes they break large classes into smaller groups.

Ann Marie VanDerZanden, an associate provost at Iowa State, said her institution has identified 63 programs that ambitious students can finish in three years. About 165 students a year do it, she said.

Other states, too, are concerned about getting students to graduation sooner. For instance, Texas has a $1,000 rebate at public universities for qualifying students who finish in four years.

The University of Hawaii started a promotional program several years ago called 15 to Finish, stressing the need to average 15 credit hours per semester to finish in four years.

It’s unfair to compare schools with open enrollment, such as Peru, Wayne and Chadron State Colleges, with colleges with higher admission standards like those at UNL and Creighton University. Creighton’s four-year graduation rate of close to 70 percent, in fact, dwarfs that of the four-year public colleges and universities in Nebraska.

“Our freshmen all create a four-year academic plan,” said Mary Chase, a vice provost at Creighton. “We put them on a four-year track.”

Chase said Creighton is “building toward the next 40 (years) and not just the four that they’re here.”

She said freshmen take a one-semester seminar that helps acclimate them to Creighton.

The additional cost of taking six years to graduate, for example, varies because some students spend more time at jobs than others. Taking two additional years also jeopardizes graduation because finances, illness, family circumstances, marriage or lost momentum can impede fulfilling the goal.

“Life can get in the way,” said Tom Harnisch of the American Association of State College and Universities.

The cost alone of going two more years can be surprising. Michael Baumgartner, executive director of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, estimated that tuition, fees, supplies, lost earnings and additional student loan interest would exceed $100,000 for a UNL student going a couple of extra years.

The estimate is “pretty reasonable based on familial experience,” said Baumgartner, who has a son at UNL.

Dan Shipp, a UNO and University of Nebraska Medical Center vice chancellor, said 2015 was the first year UNO hit 20 percent for its four-year graduation rate. Shipp said graduating in four years is tough for many UNO students because a lot of them work long hours at jobs.

Shipp said it’s important that students find a connection with others through various academic programs, ethnic organizations, the Greek system, club sports and other activities. Shipp called these “lifeboats” in which students make friends and in some cases meet mentors and success coaches.

“The four-year nut to crack is a tough one for all institutions,” Shipp said.

The College of St. Mary has lifeboats including a single parent peer mentoring program and an African-American mentoring program.

A fairly new UNO lifeboat is the Success Academy, which involves students who are “admitted by review” because they are academically at risk. The program provides intensive advising to about 200 students a year, close monitoring by involved faculty members, peer mentors and a critical-thinking class, among other activities.

Both the NU system and the state college system say holding a college to a four-year standard isn’t a true measure of success. Some students leave a college and graduate from another one. Others transfer into the college but aren’t included in the federal data because they aren’t first-time students.

And completing in five or six years — or any number of years — remains a victory.

The state college system’s four-year graduation rate has remained flat over the past few years. Those colleges tout their federally funded Student Success Services and other programs for disadvantaged students.

Peru State’s Kaylee Gill went through that program and is two years from graduation. Gill will finish in five because she added an early childhood education major to her art education major.

Gill, of South Sioux City, Nebraska, is putting herself through college. She has scholarships, students loans and jobs — a work-study position as an office assistant in the school of education, a mentoring job, and a spot in an after-school program at Hayward Elementary in Nebraska City.

“It’s overwhelming sometimes,” she said of her school and work load. “I just know that in the end, it will be worth it.”

Denzell Clements said more than a dozen relatives and friends saw him collect his diploma at UNO nine days ago.

“Graduation was a special moment for me,” Clements said. Some of his relatives cried with joy, Clements said, but he didn’t. He’s not a crier.

Correction: Tom Harnisch was misidentified in a previous version of this story.

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