Some Scholars Take Slow Road to Graduation

Times Staff Writer

Twenty-five years after beginning college, Sean O’Leary is a fresh graduate of San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in social science.

For O’Leary, 43, a graveyard-shift patrol sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department, the quarter-century journey was anything but a leisurely stroll through academia.

First, his studies were interrupted in the 1980s by, among other things, a four-year stint in the Marines and a divorce. Then, after resuming college in the early 1990s, O’Leary squeezed in two courses nearly every fall and spring semester while holding down his police job and helping raise four children. His graduation in late May was “a long time in coming” and “a relief,” O’Leary said.


At recent college commencement ceremonies, gray hair was on display along with the caps and gowns, and not just from faculty and administrators. The latest federal numbers show that about one-fifth of graduates nationwide are long-term students who took more than twice as many years to earn bachelor’s degrees as classmates on the traditional four-year plan.

Urban Campuses

The abundance of students taking extended paths to graduation is particularly noticeable at urban, largely commuter schools such as San Francisco State and others in the 23-campus California State University system. The nation’s largest public university system, Cal State graduates far more long-term students than the University of California or leading private schools. Its campuses attract older students with evening classes, comparatively low fees and, sometimes, child care.

“We’re a bootstrap kind of institution,” said Jo Volkert, an associate vice president at San Francisco State. “We want to embrace the person who ... maybe didn’t make it the first time around and wants to come back and try again. That’s just our nature.”

Research on these students remains scarce. But among the nation’s 1.2 million bachelor’s degree recipients in the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent for which federal statistics are available, 19% graduated more than eight years after entering college. That share is up slightly from 18% seven years earlier.

In addition, the portion of bachelor’s degree recipients in the traditional age category of 23 or younger was 56.5% nationally in 1999-2000, down from 64% seven years earlier. The Cal State system has many fewer graduates in the traditional age category: In 1999-2000, only 26.3% of Cal State bachelor’s degree graduates were 23 or younger.

University administrators and other experts say the older graduates reflect many different experiences, with most defying the time-honored image of the “perpetual” or “professional” student drifting from class to class.

Some long-termers temporarily dropped out of school or studied part time to raise children, and others had their studies delayed by the demands of jobs. Still others appear to have been slowed by divorces or other personal crises, as well as by moves from one part of the country to another. Students at Cal State campuses and at other schools sometimes complain that they are delayed because they can’t get seats in crowded, required classes.

The one common theme, researchers say, is that these students persist. “They are focused on goals, and they’re going to get there, no matter how long it takes,” said Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education.

Jesus Leyva, 27, graduated from Cal State San Bernardino on Sunday, eight years after beginning his college studies there. Leyva, who moved to California from Mexico with his parents at age 3, is the first in his family to attend college and called it “one of the best experiences of my life.”

Yet like many long-term students, Leyva took a break from school -- a year -- to work in a food service job at a casino. “I was getting pretty good money. But after a while, I realized this was the most I would be making,” Leyva said. He opted to return to college and pursue a business career with more opportunity for advancement.

His time on campus also was extended because he changed majors. Leyva first chose international business, thinking that it would be a field in which he could take advantage of his fluency in Spanish, but he didn’t enjoy the classes.

Eventually, he settled on a double major in marketing and management. Now, with his degree, Leyva said, “I feel I’ll be one step ahead of the average person.”

San Francisco State, a compact campus of just over 100 acres on the southwestern edge of the city, includes many long-term undergraduates in its 28,000-student body.

The latest numbers show that only 40.3% of San Francisco State students who enter as freshmen graduate from the school within six years, slightly less than the Cal State system average. Yet another 12.1% of San Francisco State students -- and 9.4% throughout the Cal State system -- remain enrolled at the campus after six years, and officials believe that nearly all of them continue their studies until graduating.

Volkert, the San Francisco State administrator, said the students who spend years on campus include a few who simply “enjoy being a student.” But most, Volkert said, are working hard, despite family and work demands, to complete their studies. These students, she said, are “doggedly determined to finish.”

Helen Goldsmith, associate dean for undergraduate studies, said a major factor that stretches the time to graduation for many of the students on the San Francisco campus is that they are the first in their families to attend college.

As a result, students frequently need extra time to learn the ins and outs of college and to find the right major.

“We have over 100 majors, so how do you walk in the door and figure out which one is right for me?” Goldsmith said.

In some cases, she said, “you stumble into something that you didn’t even know existed when you started college because you hadn’t been exposed.”

Yet switching majors, she said, often translates into a longer path to graduation. Cal State campuses have been under pressure to provide better counseling and take other steps to speed students toward completion.

Another way San Francisco State supports some long-term students is through its Stay-in-School Family Resource Center. The center provides day care and other services for low-income students with children.

“It definitely helped when it came to needing space to write my papers and have somewhere for my children,” said Lawanda Muhammad, 28, a recent San Francisco State graduate who is divorced and raising two boys, ages 6 and 8.

Muhammad, a math major who started college in 1994 and who plans to teach high school, said she dropped out of college for three years when she was overwhelmed by working and caring for her children and elderly relatives.

After getting a job as a teacher’s aide at a predominantly minority high school, however, she decided to return to college, initially part time.

“I really saw a need in my community for teachers of mathematics,” said Muhammad, who is African American.

Keeping a Vow

For police Sgt. O’Leary, the motivation comes from a promise he made to his ailing grandfather shortly before the family patriarch died in 1981.

O’Leary said his then-ailing grandfather asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I told him I wanted to be a police officer, I wanted to be a Marine, and I wanted to be a teacher. And he said, ‘Don’t be in my position until you’ve completed all three....’ So I promised him I would,” O’Leary said.

Still, it wasn’t easy. He has worked the late-night shift for the Police Department for years, partly so that he could schedule classes for the late afternoon and early evening.

He sometimes had to drop courses or briefly withdraw from school because of the job, such as when his days off were canceled after violence erupted in the city following the 1992 Rodney King verdicts. Juggling school, work and family has been possible, O’Leary said, because of the support of his wife of 11 years, Elizabeth Jean Robertson. She knows what it’s like to be a long-term student herself, having earned her bachelor’s degree in 1987 from San Francisco State after 11 years of on-and-off studies.

O’Leary said he planned to retire from the Police Department with a pension in eight years and then go to work as a teacher, preferably part-time, at the sixth- to eighth-grade level. Over the next several years, he plans to do his student teaching and continue at San Francisco State to earn a teaching credential.

O’Leary said he hoped his graduation would be an inspiration to his children, who range in age from 9 to 24, if they encounter roadblocks in eventually earning their own college degrees. The trick to succeeding, he said, is “don’t give up.”