I skipped out on my degree. Can I run back and get it?
May 18, 2007 5:31 PM   Subscribe

About three years I graduated from a fairly prestigious art college in the USA. At least...I was supposed to have. I fell hilariously juuuuuuust short of graduating, and now I'm feeling the burn.

Thing is, I'm an idiot. I had a science requirement which had to be filled at the last minute with Psychology. This was fine, except depression and other life stuff jumped onto my back and stomped away. It didn't help that I had already graduated - as in, go to the ceremony and see my name read off - and that this was a post-grad summer class. Everything seemed pointless to me. I did fine in the class itself, but I let the "participate in a psych experiment" aspect drift away from me.

At first I had simply forgotten about it, but then I just became lazy and...well, depressed. I wound up not giving a shit about my stupid fine arts degree and working anyway without it. It did not impact my life that I had gone through college and then failed a class on a technicality. Nobody ever asked or asks to see my art degree. I am, as far as I know, not officially a graduate of this art college.

As you can plainly see, that was a mind-blowingly idiotic waste of time and money. I have no excuse for it. I simply kept saying, "oh, I should fix that..." and then not fixing it. And then life marched on. It always seemed more and more stressful to even inquire about it. And now it's the present. And while I'm not directly headed towards grad school - and I'm sure grad schools would ADORE the guy who let his degree plunk out for a lousy few moments memorizing squares or something - it would be kinda, you know, helpful and nice to actually get that degree.

But I am terrified. I am terrified to confront this past, inexplicable failure. I am terrified to have to explain myself to the university so late. And I am terrified that after all this rigamarole, I will be greeted with massive failure: "no, Mr. X, you do not get to reclaim your degree. You do not even get to come back to take and extra science credit to make up for it. There is no sane reason why you wouldn't simply be expelled from any other college for this nonsense. You need to start all over again somewhere else."

If you were me, what would you do? Do I have a chance? How fucked am I? My employment record is uninspiring but existent (although I've done my fun art stuff on the side). What can I do? How should I explain myself? Even in the worst case scenario, where I have to start all over - I mean, what happens there? Will all the credits vanish in a puff of failure?

(And I'm well aware that all this absolute nonsense is tied in with my historically nasty mental health. I'm going to see a shrink after I get my health insurance sorted out this summer, but aside from social services visits from when I was a kid and family members getting treated, I'm not going to be able to present any kind of official diagnosis to my college. Somehow, this feels even lamer - "Hey guys, I was really bummed out and forgot to graduate. Oh, there's no credible record of that.")
posted by anonymous to Education (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I am, as far as I know, not officially a graduate of this art college.

First of all, just request your transcript. See what it says. At my alma mater, you can request them electronically thru the school website and they mail it to you without ever requiring to speak to you.

That'll be the same transcript grad schools get, so once you have it in hand, you'll see how the problem looks, if indeed it looks like anything. And from there you can contact the school to see what make-ups are required.
posted by xo at 5:39 PM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you were me, what would you do?

Go back, talk to an advisor, and tell them exactly what you told us. This sort of thing is NOT uncommon. Please don't think you're the only person this has happened to. Without knowing which school you went to, we can't say for sure --- but I feel almost certain that, within ten years, you can definitely complete your degree. I have never heard of a university or college where credits go stale in under ten years.

Do I have a chance?

Yes, absolutely!

How fucked am I?

Probably not fucked at all. Please, just go talk to an advisor at your college; this will probably be easy to resolve.
posted by jayder at 5:40 PM on May 18, 2007

can you sue them for something? anything? threaten to?

Wait, what in the world would anonymous need to sue anyone for. All anonymous needs to do is just complete that one last class and get the degree.

At the undergrad school I went to, I think credits go stale after ten years; i.e., they no longer count toward a degree, and you have to do it all over again.

Anonymous probably just needs to take a class. Anonymous is overwhelmed with feelings of guilt (understandable, since finishing a degree is a big deal) and is probably assuming that the college policies are more draconian than they actually are.
posted by jayder at 5:43 PM on May 18, 2007

You'll be fine; just communicate with your college and I think you'll be pleased with how un-fucked you actually are.
posted by porn in the woods at 5:44 PM on May 18, 2007

Probably not fucked. I've known a few people who got back to an abandoned degree at various stages of unfinishedness without any real difficulties. Your credits remain good for quite a while at most colleges.

And the really damned important thing you need to deal with: no one at the college will care, at all, that you did this. They will not tell you to shove off; they will not gasp; they will not blink. They'll tell you what paperwork to do, take your money, and let you go to class.

This is a huge deal to you, but it's business as usual for the school. Give them a call, ramble on in embarrassed fashion if you need to, but just tell them where you are, what you want to know, and what you want to do (if it even turns out to need doing): finish up your degree.
posted by cortex at 5:48 PM on May 18, 2007

Here's an article about several people in a similar situation you may find reassuring. The school actually tracked down people in your position to offer them the chance to do what you want to do.
posted by Partial Law at 5:54 PM on May 18, 2007

Also, if you're of a cynical bent, remember that colleges make money from your tuition. They're happy to see more income. And like others have said, it happens all the time! Don't fret at all about it.
posted by Addlepated at 6:09 PM on May 18, 2007

I'm not in the US, but it took me from 1999 to 2006 to complete a three-year degree, due to a combination of financial woes and depression. The university was generally supportive, although one lecturer (in jest, I hope) threatened to kill me if I didn't get my final piece of coursework in, and I now have a degree. Obviously, the first step is to contact the college, and if you get a positive response, think of how much better you'll feel. And in the unlikely event that they tell you to piss off, then you'll have some sort of resolution, which is far better than none, even if it seems negative.

This hasn't been idiotic of you, not at all. If you could get extra credit for every time someone, including myself, has been stuck rabbit-in-headlights-like over some easily surmountable problem, then we'd all have PhDs to spare.
posted by liquidindian at 6:15 PM on May 18, 2007

I don't think your are even remotely fucked. Colleges often have stipulations that certain courses be taken on campus, but it doesn't sound like a pysch course unrelated to your major would be one of them. Call them up. Tell them you think you're one credit shy and that you'd like to take a course at X College and transfer it to them to complete your degree.

There are lots of State Colleges with night or online degree programs that you should be able to easily enroll at as a non-matriculated student. Just make sure that your art school will accept the credit before you start the class.

Please, please don't let yourself get sucked back into depression by thoughts that you alone in all the world messed up your degree. I can show you my awful transcript, with the A's giving way to F's and finally the cobbled together credits from the two colleges I had to go to post-senior year. And even with that on my record I was able to get accepted into a new bachelor's program recently when I decided to change careers. Good luck.
posted by saffry at 6:17 PM on May 18, 2007

Assuming your school is at all credible and accredited they will have clearly written requirements and procedures for what you need to do to get your degree. They may even have them online (in NZ you'd look it up in the University calendar). Get your transcript first (good suggestion) then match it to the degree requirements. This will show you what is needed (if anything) to complete the degree.

They will also have specific procedures in place for occasions just like this. You may also be able to get hold of these online, otherwise there will be someone whose job it is to explain them and to help you (a student advisor or something). Ring the main phone number for your Uni, tell them your problem and ask to be put through to who ever is appropriate. There will be a way through this and I'd be incredibly surprised if it was anything beyond completing the necessary credit.

I understand why you're upset about this. The feelings of guilt and shame are strong. I dropped out half way through my MSc due to depression and eventually completed it at a different university. I hate trying to explain it to people now and writing my resume is fun. But really, it's not unusual and no one else cares as much as you. My new Uni didn't even ask what happened or why I dropped out, it's more common than you'd think. Don't fret too much about how you're going to make to work, the Uni will tell you what you need to do. It's in their interest for you to be a happy graduate and they will work with you to make that happen.

Good luck!
posted by shelleycat at 6:22 PM on May 18, 2007

I had a friend who, due to depression and whatnot, failed to turn in the final papers for some classes in her Sophomore year. After that, she was too ashamed to ever look at her grade reports or transcript. She nearly killed herself taking a huge course-load Senior year in order to make up the credits. Finally, after graduation, she looked back and discovered that, not only had she passed the courses in question, she had actually gotten decent grades. It would have saved her a lot of angst and work if she'd checked her grades out a few years earlier. Who knows, you may have actually passed that class! It's definitely worth checking.

(This friend, btw, now has a very successful career and earns many times what I do. So messing up for a while in college doesn't mean you won't be able to get your life fully together later on!)
posted by wyzewoman at 6:36 PM on May 18, 2007

Seconding everyone who says this is okay, routine, fixable. Nobody will be shocked, lots of students have depression problems in college, lots of bright students have one or two hiccups that cause problems on their records. Really. Policies vary among schools, so nobody here can give you a definite answer -- just call your school and they will be able to help. (Elite arts colleges especially are very interested in having people graduate. It's overwhelmingly likely that they will try to help you find a way.)

Begin by looking up your school's website and finding the phone number of the registrar. Call them. Here's a script for the call.

1. You: I was a student there x years ago, and I'm not sure what my status is. Can you help me figure this out?

2. They: yes (or they'll transfer you). Can you tell me your student number? Let me look in your records... okay I have them right here.

3. You: I'm not sure if I ever technically finished the final course I needed for the degree. That would be Psych 101, from Summer of year y. What grade do you have for that?

4. They: It looks like a pass. (if so, hooray! Ask if this means you are an official graduate.) OR It looks like a fail. (If so, boo. Skip to Step 7.) OR It looks like an Incomplete. (If so, go to Step 5.)

5. You: Ok, is it possible for the professor to change that Incomplete if I got in touch with him/her and talked about a way to meet the requirements?

6. They: Yes or no, depending on how much time has passed. If yes, contact the professor with a straightforward email about the course (including your name, student number, the semester you took it, and what you needed to make up) and ask if there's anything you can do now to earn a passing mark. If no, then...

7. You: Ok, what would I have to do to complete my degree now? Can credits from another school count (eg if I took a class in my current location)?

8. They will tell you. You will take notes.

9. Off the phone, decide whether it's worth taking those steps.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:02 PM on May 18, 2007

This scenario is actually a reoccurring nightmare I have, so I sympathize with the anxiety it must generate to live it.

I am an academic advisor, and recently I've worked on helping three people in situations similar to yours. Two are students who should've graduated from our department (one in 1983!), but were each one course short due to failing. I haven't quite worked out how we'll get 1983 guy graduated, but I plan to spend quite a bit of time next week tackling on it.

The other person I helped is my close friend who should've received a degree from a university in another state, but a professor never removed an incomplete. She had a lot of anxiety about resolving the situation and put it off for a year or so, so I offered to make some calls to her school to get the details of what she needed to do.

The advice here so far has been very good - order and check your transcript. Read the university's relevant policies on-line about graduation. Also check for policies regarding transfer classes - you might be able to make up the requirement where you live now. Then write a nice email to your major department's academic office or call them. As an advisor, I wouldn't find the reasons you didn't finish to be necessary if you didn't feel like discussing it. But I am very interested in helping students graduate and consider it part of my job, even if they've been away for a while.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:21 PM on May 18, 2007

I practically did this, I know several people who did this. It is not a big deal at all. It's stressful, but the advisor you speak to is not going to be gasping in horror at your situation. They probably dealt with the exact same thing last week. The absolute most you will have to offer in way of explanation is "I was suffering from some depression then." That's it. No doctor's note required.

One observation that really helped me is this: Most people think motivation comes before productive action but it's actually the other way around. A lot of times you have to just jump in and take some action, then the motivation follows. So call, call, call. Or if you can't deal with calling, email. Just get the ball rolling. I like to grab a timer and set it for 15 minutes and Just Do Something on a problem like this.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:59 PM on May 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Call the school. Find out what you need to do to graduate. Do it. Graduate. They want you to graduate ( and then they will but you every year for donations). I know it seems like an almost insurmountable hurdle right now. Trust me. It is a speed bump, and you are driving a Cadillac with the butter smooth suspension. After you hit the bump, which looks so scary, you will wonder if there ever really was a bump, and you will have a diploma.
posted by caddis at 8:08 PM on May 18, 2007

OK, they will bug you, but it will seem like butting.
posted by caddis at 8:37 PM on May 18, 2007

They'll probably be glad to hear from you - a chance to sell you one last course to make it up.
posted by normy at 9:49 PM on May 18, 2007

I know all about worst-case scenario thinking - I give in to it more than I should myself. I just got my bachelor's degree last year after years and years of my own college fuckups and false starts and whatnot. I'm 37, btw.

What you need to realize is that they're on your side.
posted by O9scar at 10:02 PM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I can almost bet you were a SCAD student. DON'T worry, I have a lot of friends who failed post-graduation classes. Go back, let an advisor know- it is not as bad as you think it is!
posted by thebrokenmuse at 11:19 PM on May 18, 2007

I was in the same situation. I was one science credit short of getting a bachelor's in history from a state school in California . I went through the cap and gown ceremony, my family even partially bankrolled a trip to Europe thinking that I was the first college graduate in the family. I had intended to take the biology lab class that I needed that summer but instead decided to work full-time in order to save money for my trip. I kept putting the class off due to a hatred of science and complete exhaustion with taking pointless university classes.

Fast forward a year, I had moved to Oregon and decided to finally take that class so that I'd have my degree and be employable in something besides a food service job. I took a biology class at a local community college and surprisingly got an A (I had failed this class twice in California due to excessive absences). I sent my transcript back to my first school and patiently awaited my diploma. I eventually received a letter in the mail notifying me that I was still 12 credits short of graduating. I found this very confusing and made a call to find out what the deal was.

Long story short, after one year away from this particular school, I had lost my right to graduate under my incoming class graduation requirements and must now fulfill the current classes graduation requirements. Of course, in that year out of school, the dean of the history department stepped down, and was replaced by someone who completely revamped the program. I was now required to take 3 California history classes. I checked around, and no universities in my area offered any courses in California history. I had no interest in turning around and moving back to California either. The new Dean was very uncooperative and refused to sign a waiver allowing me to graduate under my original requirements and I was informed that I had no other options.

After some soulsearching, I decided to pursue another degree which lead me to find a great job where I met my current wife. While I certainly believed that I was the biggest moron on the west coast for a long time, I am very fortunate that things turned out the way they did. Hopefully, this will work out for you easier than it did for me.
posted by danb1 at 4:06 PM on May 19, 2007

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