Office of the Provost

Letters to Families of Pitt Freshman


December 15, 2008

Dear Family and Friends of Pitt Freshmen: 

It was good to see so many of you at the Freshman Orientation and Family Weekend activities in Pittsburgh this fall.  Partly because some of you asked me to provide in written form some of the information I cited at the orientation and partly because others were not able to be there on that occasion, I am writing now to offer you some thoughts on the education that we at Pitt aspire to offer your student and on issues of which you should be aware so that you can help your student to draw as strong an education as possible from the University of Pittsburgh. I hope these thoughts may be useful to you as your family talks about your student’s freshman year experience.

Americans think of a college education as a four year enterprise. The reason this educational experience is designed to take four years is largely of historical interest, but it is undeniable that most undergraduate curricula at American universities are designed to be of four years’ duration for a well prepared, well motivated student. 

And yet all too many American students take more than four years to complete the supposedly four-year curriculum. Many of you make significant sacrifices in order to send your student to the University of Pittsburgh. You have good reason to ask why a student would need more than four years to complete his or her degree. 

The reasons are many: some good, some bad and some in between. 

I want to identify for you a few of the most common reasons for students taking more than four years to complete their degrees and offer you some thoughts on each. 

1.         Internships with potential employers. Internships offer a chance to use the communications, critical thinking and leadership skills students learn during the first years of college.  Such experiences can help students to see the value of their college education and motivate them to draw more from their course-work when they return to campus.  While internships can frequently be scheduled to avoid graduation delays, they do sometimes cause such delays. Consciously adopted, internships can be a very good reason for taking more than four years to graduate.

2.         Study abroad. This gives students a breadth of experience that will be of great future value to them as reflective adults, informed citizens and employees of firms that must deal with global markets and for most students, it need not delay graduation. Because some curricula (for example, some technical fields) do not lend themselves to studying abroad without delaying graduation, study abroad can be a very good reason for taking more than four years to graduate.

3.         Designing a curriculum that meets career or academic aspirations but does not lend itself to a four-year graduation. For instance, many students want to major in more than one subject, sometimes in several disciplines. While in most programs a double major can be accomplished in four years, doing this successfully takes careful planning and that planning may not be in place for a student who decides late to follow such a course. As long as the student and the family understand the implications of the student’s decision, graduating late in order to have an education better tailored to the student’s needs can be a good reason for taking more than four years.

4.         Working while attending college. Some students need to work many hours per week in order to pay their bills, and these students find that they cannot carry a full academic load of 15 credits. In previous generations, we called this “working your way through college” and we did not expect the student to graduate “on time.” 

5.         Changing the course of study. Depending on how late a student decides to change majors, this can make it utterly impossible to graduate in four years. However, if the student has really learned more about him- or herself during the early part of college and changes the field of studies for good reasons, graduating late should be considered a very desirable alternative to staying with a career path that could lead the student to an unhappy life. Again, the family should be consulted and should understand fully the implications of the decision to delay graduation.

6.         Thinking that 12 credits make a full academic assignment for a term. This is simply wrong. This misconception is enabled by the federal rule that loans and grants for full-time students can be held by students who only register for twelve credits. Unless a student is poorly prepared or has a problem that makes it just too hard to carry a full academic load, graduating late because of taking too few credits for the four-year pace is a bad reason for graduating late.

If we now step beyond the narrow issue of helping your student decide whether and how to graduate in four years, let me offer some reflections on the key features of a Pitt education. The University of Pittsburgh makes major investments on a variety of fronts, including facilities, information technology, and student life. At the root of these investments is the drive to provide our students with a comprehensive environment to develop their talents. We are committed to educating the whole student.

Every Pitt graduate, regardless of the degree earned or the year in which that degree is earned, should leave the University with these qualities:

  • Communications skills. We want our graduates to be known as people who write and speak well. They need to be comfortable with computers and technology, and aware of the variety of cultures in the world, including the diversity of our own country. This will not only make them better employees, but better citizens.
  • A sense of self. Our graduates should be reflective people who have thought long and hard about their personal, professional, and academic goals. As you will have noted in the list of reasons for taking more than four years to complete a degree, the University offers a range of opportunities and support to help students develop a sense of self and their relations to the society around them both in the city and around the globe. You should encourage your student to participate actively in our Outside the Classroom Curriculum program (, which is intended to educate the whole student through the completion of a series of programs, activities, and experiences that complement each student’s academic studies. 
  • Motivation. Our curriculum is well-thought-out in strong academic course work which, with proper student motivation, should prepare our students to be exceptionally well-informed, clear in their thinking and adept at pursuing the mastery of their fields of choice. In order to enlist them in their own education, we seek to encourage the proper motivation by offering a variety of stimulating experiences, from beneficial internships, to our international and study abroad program, to our connection to the city of Pittsburgh through our Pitt Arts program ( and easy access to other offerings. 
  • A sense of responsibility. Most of all, we want clear-thinking individuals who feel a responsibility to society. We provide volunteer opportunities and encourage our students to get involved with the community ( We want our graduates to be aware of society’s challenges, and to participate in meeting them.

I know you share our commitment to providing the best possible opportunities for an enriched higher education to your student; that’s one reason why your family chose Pitt. Please continue to work with your student to understand the personal, academic and professional goals he or she is pursuing and to endorse his or her plan for pursuing those goals through a chosen curriculum. In this way, many more students will graduate in four years, and those who do not will be delaying graduation in an informed way for reasons everyone understands.

Many families have more questions on how to access information about the University’s progress in assessing our ability to meet our own goals. Much of the data is readily accessible through my office’s Accountability Web page ( Here you can find graduation rates, for example, and information on our assessment of learning outcomes. We are continuing to work on developing a culture of assessment in all of our programs at Pitt; your feedback and suggestions on this are very welcome and can be sent to my senior assistant, Kit Ayars, at

I hope that you have found the information in this letter to be useful. I wish you and your student a very happy holiday season.



James V. Maher

cc:        Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg

            Members of the Council of Deans