Why America’s College Students Don’t Graduate
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The Fiscal Times
December 19, 2011

With university costs rising, parents of college students who graduate early are counting themselves lucky. Los Angeles advertising executive Steve Fisher is one of those—his daughter Kimberly, 19, is finishing her second year at the University of California-Irvine and plans to get her bachelor’s degree in genetics a year early—she’ll be done in spring 2013. Fisher figures that will save the family $22,000 in tuition and at least another $9,000 in room and board.

As students go, Kimberly has strayed from the norm. She’s among a tiny group who will finish early. About 1.5 percent of students now get bachelor’s degrees within three years, according to an analysis of government education data by researcher Clifford Adelman at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. But it’s far more common for students to take longer than four years — a study last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that in the last three decades, more students are having trouble graduating on time.

Today, especially among low-income students who attend public community colleges as a gateway to a college or university, 27 percent actually graduate in four years, and 48 percent of those pursuing bachelor’s degrees at private schools do so, according to ACT Inc., an organization that provides college testing exams and other services. Most students take at least six years, and even then only 55 percent get their degrees.  

With the cost of tuition and student debt increasing, an extra year can tack on $16,140 in tuition, fees, and room and board at a four-year public university, and $36,993 at a four-year private college. Add the student’s lost year of income and the real price of an extra year can range from $45,000 to $90,000 or more a year.

To address the issue, a few schools are trying to reverse the trend by overhauling how they operate. Some education advocates believe that shortening the road to a degree will raise the proportion of students who get one, while also saving students money. 

One unavailable prerequisite course can cost a student an entire year.

Choosing a major early along with a student’s personal motivation are major factors in on-time graduation, but research shows that most students are juggling school and work, which slows their progress. According to a 2006 study by the American Council on Education, 42 percent of students at both public and private nonprofit four-year schools work more than 20 hours a week. According to a 2008 study by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, working increases time to graduation and decreases the likelihood of getting a degree,

Students also fall behind because classes they need aren’t available when they need them, notes a 2010 report  by the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit that advises southern state educational leaders. One unavailable prerequisite course can cost a student an entire year. A frustrated parent told Wisconsin’s WISC-TV in December 2009 that her son, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, had taken enough credits but still would not be able to graduate in four years because of full classes. “He has been pleading with staff at UW-SP to get this rectified and they will not do anything other than get him finished in four and a half years,” she said.

Lightweight classes continue to fill college catalogs, like “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame.”

Another time suck: many students are taking classes they don’t need. Data released this fall by national nonprofit Complete College America show that 4-year students, who normally need 120 credits to graduate, are instead amassing an average of 136.5 units. Many experts have also questioned the necessity of some courses and requirements.

Lightweight classes continue to fill college catalogs, like “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, “Harry Potter: Finding Your Patronus” at Oregon State University, and “DJ History, Culture and Technique” at New York University — all of which go toward degree requirements.

“Given the resource constraints out there, the issue of decreasing time to degree is critical.”

Advocates like Tom Sugar of Complete College America want to change all of that. “The important thing is setting an expectation of on-time completion when students begin their studies,” he says. The group calls on universities to operate year round, require annually updated on-time completion plans for every student, and drop the number of credit hours needed for a degree, among other measures.

STEVE YODER writes about business, real estate and other domestic policy issues. His work has appeared in print and online at Salon, The American Prospect, Men's Health, The Crime Report, and elsewhere.