Why America’s College Students Don’t Graduate
Life + Money

Why America’s College Students Don’t Graduate

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

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.

Some legislators, most notably Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, want even more — they are pushing colleges to make it possible for more students to finish in three years. Southern Oregon University, for example, offers an “accelerated baccalaureate” program for students in certain disciplines who have good high school grades or high test scores. The program cuts up to a year’s worth of general education classes from qualifying students’ coursework and gives them priority in course registration. If they take a full load each term, they can graduate in three years, usually without going to summer school. By lopping off that year, the program saves them between $7000 and $21,000 in tuition and fees alone.

Other schools have cut the number of credit hours required to graduate—last month, the South Dakota Board of Regents went from 128 to 120 for a four-year degree from any state school. California State University-Northridge cracked down on its own problem—“super-seniors” —students who have amassed excess credits but not filed for graduation. Now the school prohibits those who have more than 130 credits from registering for additional classes, which has reduced their number by more than 50 percent.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a national organization representing public colleges and universities, embraces the idea of more efficiency in moving students toward degrees. “The evidence is clear that we need to generate more credentialed individuals with college degrees,” says Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the association. “Given the resource constraints out there, this issue of decreasing time to degree is critical.”

But putting all students on a four-year timeline could actually increase the number of dropouts,  especially among those who need remedial help coming out of high school, says Nicki Washington, author of two books on preparing for college and an associate professor at Washington D.C.’s Howard University. “If we focus too heavily on students getting out within four years, there are certain students who just will not be able to because of where they come in academically.”

A handful of state governments have started to offer incentives to schools that go along. At least two--Florida and Indiana—are using performance-based state funding to reward colleges that achieve higher levels of on-time graduation. Complete College America supports efforts to tie funding to performance. “Increasing on-time completion isn’t about trying to squeeze blood from a stone,” contends Sugar. “It’s about what you are getting for your investment.”