Five is the new four: UBC students are extending their undergrad degrees

Ana Bandari knew she would take at least five years to complete her degree when she came to UBC. She was going into engineering — a program that requires students to take over five classes a term in their first year — and she wanted to do co-op.

“It feels like to finish my degree in four years, I’d really have to rush, and I feel like that's not something you should really be doing with learning,” the third-year electrical engineering student said in an interview with The Ubyssey.

Now, three years into her degree, Bandari said she is likely going to graduate in six years as she juggles engineering courses during the school year with work terms over the summer.

“It’s constantly like, ‘I have to make sure I pass this course so I can take these courses,’ or ‘I’ll have to take this course on co-op,’” she said. “So it’s stressful.”

Bandari isn’t alone in taking more than four years to complete her undergraduate degree.

Although UBC Vancouver advertises almost all of its undergraduate programs as four-year degrees, more and more students are taking at least five years to graduate, according to data from UBC’s Planning and Institutional Research Office (PAIR).

Between 2011 and 2018, there were an average of 4,170 students who took five to ten years to complete their undergraduate degrees each year, while only an average of 1,441 students took four years or less.

PAIR hasn't released full data for 2019 through 2023, but speaking to students around campus will reveal the popularity of studying for at least five years.

Outside of UBC, a Statistics Canada database on post-secondary education notes that the average Canadian university student took 4.53 years in the 2014/15 to complete their undergrad. In the same year, students in BC on average took 4.82 years on average.

Students, regardless of faculty or origin, likely to take five years

The majority of domestic, international and Indigenous students took more than four years to graduate between 2011 and 2018.

The same trend was seen when looking at faculty data, with most students in the four largest faculties — Applied Science (engineering), Arts, Commerce and Science — taking more than four years.

Notably, the Faculty of Applied Science had the lowest proportion of students who graduated in four years or less each year, followed by Science and Arts.

Of the six programs marked as taking longer than four years to complete on the UBC website, only two — environmental engineering and engineering physics — are from the Faculty of Applied Science. The remaining are in either the science, land and food systems, or education faculties.

Of the six programs marked as taking longer than four years to complete on the UBC website, only two — environmental engineering and engineering physics — are from the Faculty of Applied Science. The remaining are in either the science, land and food systems, or education faculties.

“While many of UBC’s programs typically take four years to complete, it is important to note that this is simply a standard and is not meant to be prescriptive,” UBC’s Associate VP Enrolment Services and Registrar Rella Ng wrote in a statement to The Ubyssey.

Bandari said while she appreciates the variety of engineering courses offered at UBC, she thinks that many of the classes currently required for first year engineering students could also be lengthening degrees by reducing focus on one specialization.

“Streamlining degrees a little bit more [could] give the students the ability to get through their degree a bit faster, but again, that comes with the loss of losing a bit of breadth of knowledge,” she said.

COVID-19 pandemic, work cited as reasons for extending degrees

Students who spoke to The Ubyssey had different reasons for extending their degree, but many pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as one factor that influenced their decision.

“I also took it kind of slow during COVID, doing a couple semesters of four or three classes,” Phil Person, a fifth-year geography student, said. He added that he took a gap semester doing a program that didn’t transfer over to UBC, which lengthened his degree.

Similarly, Dana Turdy, a fifth-year sociology and political science student, said she took a break from school entirely during the pandemic.

She took a break from school entirely during the pandemic, which disrupted the in-person learning experience.

"It's almost like I get to compensate for that in these two additional years," she said.

Another common reason for taking more than four years was work and co-op programs.

Turdy said she has worked either full- or part-time throughout her degree, including as the 2022/23 AMS VP academic and university affairs. She said she needed to work in order to repay her student loans and save for after university.

“It's just kind of like peace of mind knowing that I won't be in as much debt when I get out of school,” she said, adding that the high cost of living in Vancouver has been another factor.

Ng said the university recognizes that every student has a “unique” academic journey in her statement to The Ubyssey.

When asked if they could redo their university experience again, but in four years, Bandari, Person and Turdy all said they would still choose to extend their degrees.

Person said being a fifth-year is like being part of a “cool, little community.”

“Even though it’s not a bad thing to take more than four years, it is nice meeting other fifth- years,” he said.

Turdy said she has enjoyed her longer degree and that she has been able to do more as a result.

“I feel like the four-year model doesn't really take into account students who have other obligations,” she added.

And, although there has been the added stress from planning courses and co-op work terms, Bandari said choosing to extend her degree has been worth it.

“There's no point in stressing yourself out over five courses and putting yourself through long periods of burnout,” she said.