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Congratulations, Class of 2013, you earned your college degree.

Now, give yourself an extra pat on the back if you did so in four years. That is no easy feat, given the challenges students and college administrators face. Increasing the percentage of students graduating in four years has emerged as an important goal for higher education.

“I took the maximum amount of credits I could each semester,” said Chakriya Chear, 21, among the 2,030 undergraduate students receiving diplomas today at SUNY Buffalo State.

“It was hard,” added Gabriel Casillas, 23, another graduate. “You have to have a lot of motivation.”

In fact, only Geneseo State College, Niagara University and Canisius College – out of the dozen area colleges with commencements this weekend or last weekend – graduate a majority of their students in four years.

Fewer than half of University at Buffalo students earn their bachelor’s degrees in the traditional four-year time frame, federal figures show. At D’Youville College and Buffalo State, fewer than a quarter of students graduate within four years.

The numbers are not an anomaly.

Just more than 38 percent of first-time, full-time college students in the United States graduate with a four-year degree within four years, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

“It’s not good, and it’s pervasive,” said Tom Sugar, senior vice president with Complete College America, a national nonprofit that works to increase the number of Americans with college degrees.

Graduation rates have come under scrutiny in recent years, and not only from state and local government officials who want a better return on public dollars.

Parents, too, want their children in and out of college as quickly as possible amid soaring tuition and fees, which now average $8,655 a year at public schools and $29,056 a year at private ones.

“People are very much more concerned about the investment of time and dollars they’re making in a college education,” said Bonnie Rose, executive vice president at Niagara University. “Time is dollars in the sense you pay for that extra fifth or sixth year.”

The U.S. Education Department tracks graduation rates as the percentage of first-time, full-time students who enroll in the fall and complete their bachelor’s degree within six years.

The most recent data, released in 2012, show four-, five- and six-year graduation rates for students who started college in the fall of 2005.

Geneseo recorded the highest local four-year graduation rate – 69 percent.

At Niagara, 60 percent of students graduated in four years, followed by Canisius, 55 percent; St. Bonaventure University, 50 percent; Alfred University, 43 percent; Medaille College, 41 percent; Hilbert College, 31 percent; and Daemen College, 25 percent.

Among the SUNY institutions, 47 percent of UB students graduated in four years, compared with Fredonia State’s 44 percent and Buffalo State’s 23 percent.

But some consider the rates misleading.

The figures do not count students who attend part time, take longer than six years to graduate or transfer, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president with the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education.

Casillas and Chear, for example, spent two years at community colleges before studying at Buffalo State.

At D’Youville, 23 percent of students admitted in 2005 graduated in four years.

But that figure does not reflect the 38 percent of that class that transferred to another college, said Robert Murphy, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.

And it does not include the students who transferred to D’Youville and eventually graduated from the West Side college, Murphy said.

Still, institutions are feeling pressure to get their numbers up. That has led a growing number of schools like Medaille and UB to offer programs guaranteeing incoming freshman a diploma in four years.

At UB, nearly half of last year’s freshman class signed on to take part in the first year of the university’s “Finish in 4” program.

“We want to improve our graduation rates and have really made a strong commitment to advising and tracking our student progress,” said Scott Weber, senior vice provost for academic affairs at UB. “We have also invested heavily in additional course sections to make sure students get the courses they need when they need them.”

But the problem is complex, the college officials say.

In recent years, as enrollment grew and budgets tightened, students could not always get the classes they needed to graduate on time, particularly at the public colleges and universities.

Many arrive from high school unprepared for college work and must take noncredit remedial classes, which add to their length of stay.

Many students – still wrestling with a career path – change majors midstream.

And many college students – an estimated 75 percent of them on campuses across the country – juggle school, family and work, which limits how many classes they can take, or when they can take them, prolonging the duration of their education.

At Buffalo State, the biggest challenge to graduating in four years is financial, said Mark Petrie, associate vice president of enrollment management.

“They stop out and work for a semester to save money and come back,” Petrie said. “They can’t afford to stay in school, which is going to take them a little longer to graduate.”

Casillas and Chear know the feeling.

They worked nights and weekends at a grocery store to help pay for tuition and expenses. But both thought it was important to get their bachelor’s degree in four years.

“I didn’t want to be with that debt problem,” said Casillas, a criminal-justice major from Buffalo.

“The best way to make college more affordable is for our students to finish a four-year degree in four years,” said Sugar from Complete College America.

He puts the onus on colleges.

Colleges should provide “block” scheduling so working students have more predictable class schedules, he said.

They should place remedial students in full-credit courses with tutoring and extra class time, Sugar said.

And they should make sure students do not waste time taking unnecessary courses that do not fulfill graduation requirements, he added.

“It does not mean creating diploma mills or making college easier,” Sugar said. “Students aren’t asking for college to be easier. They’re asking for their lives to be more manageable.”

email: jrey@buffnews.com