Students walk out of the Student Union on the Stony...

Students walk out of the Student Union on the Stony Brook University campus on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Stony Brook University's president Wednesday announced a major push to get students to complete undergraduate degrees in four years -- a plan that could help reduce individual college costs and education debt.

The initiative includes giving better academic advice to keep students on track, establishing a new fund to provide aid to students who might otherwise take a semester off for unmet financial needs and boosting flexibility with more online classes.

"As the job market is improving there are more jobs available now, and the students should get out and get them," Stony Brook University President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley said in his annual on-campus State of the University address.

College graduation rates have gained more national attention since President Barack Obama recently proposed a federal college-ratings system that could tie funding to student outcomes. The federal government typically tracks whether first-time, full-time undergraduates finish their degrees in six years.

The six-year graduation rate at Stony Brook University is 68 percent, while the four-year rate is 46 percent, according to university data provided to the Department of Education.

Even as admission to SBU is getting more competitive, the four-year rate has remained flat, Stanley said. The incoming freshman class for the 2014-15 academic year had a mean grade-point average of 92.8 (out of 100) and a mean SAT score of 1253 (Math and Critical Reading), officials said.

Obtaining an undergraduate degree in under six years would save students money, on tuition, housing and other costs, and move them into the workforce or graduate programs sooner.

About 23 percent of SBU undergraduates stay for a fifth year; about 5 percent stay for a sixth year, university officials said.

There are a variety of reasons students take more time to graduate, which increases their overall college costs, said Braden Hosch, SBU assistant vice president for institutional research, planning and effectiveness.

"It could be that they can't afford that last class they need to graduate," he said.

Hosch said some of the most economically disadvantaged students are the most motivated to graduate on time because of cost and could use a little extra help.

SBU enrolled its largest class ever with 2,855 freshmen beginning this fall semester, 75 percent of whom are from New York State.

In addition to his four-year graduation plan, Stanley called Wednesday for more federal science research money and a streamlined process for obtaining grants. He also welcomed 181 new faculty members.

Expanded student housing and dining facilities, he said, are part of more than $600 million in planned campus construction projects.

With an operating budget of $2.4 billion and more than 14,000 employees, SBU is the largest, single-site employer on Long Island.

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