Failure to graduate on time adds thousands of dollars to college costs

by Grace

Most College Students Don’t Earn a Degree in 4 Years, Study Finds

Is this really news to most people?

The vast majority of students at American public colleges do not graduate on time, according to a new report from Complete College America, a nonprofit group based in Indianapolis.

“Students and parents know that time is money,” said the report, called “Four-Year Myth.” “The reality is that our system of higher education costs too much, takes too long and graduates too few.”

At most public universities, only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, the report found. Even at state flagship universities — selective, research-intensive institutions — only 36 percent of full-time students complete their bachelor’s degree on time.

Every extra year costs thousands of dollars.

… “it is costing students and their parents billions of extra dollars — $15,933 more in cost of attendance for every extra year of a public two-year college and $22,826 for every extra year at a public four-year college,” the report said. “Hands down, our best strategy to make college more affordable and a sure way to boost graduation rates over all is to ensure that many more students graduate on time.”

Students who require remediation, transfers between colleges, and too many course choices are blamed for failure to graduate on time.

Each year, the report said, 1.7 million students begin college in remediation, including a majority of community college students — but only one in 10 remedial students ever graduate.

Also, 60 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients change colleges, with almost half of them losing some of their credits when they transfer.

Too much choice in college catalogs contributes to the problem, the report said, often overwhelming 18-year-olds “with an enormous cafeteria of possibilities in the college curriculum” and too few counselors to help them chart their course.

Here are some more “Common reasons for failing to graduate college in four years”.


Tamar Lewin, “Most College Students Don’t Earn a Degree in 4 Years, Study Finds”, New York Times, Dec. 1, 2014.

22 Comments to “Failure to graduate on time adds thousands of dollars to college costs”

  1. Their #1 reason, working far too many hours, is huge at my school. Virtually all of our students are working fulltime while trying to maintain fulltime student status for financial aid reasons. This means they take the minimum number of class credits for fulltime status each semester (12) and/or flunk courses. They also have to schedule classes around their work schedules, which means they may not take an important course in the major sequence at the right time. Many are working because they have kids to support or contribute to their family’s income in some way.


  2. The Chronicle has a pretty extensive report on this
    I should note that the group behind the report is heavily financed by Bill Gates, for what that is worth. I agree with their recomendation that programs be tightly structured. In fact, I have been fighting for that at my university, because research shows that at risk students do better if they have fewer choices. However, the groups idea of limiting majors to 120 credits would be a non-started for ABET accredited engineering and CS programs, nursing programs, and other professional programs.


  3. The 4-year graduation rate at my university (a public research university) is 55%, but a lot depends on the major. The average time to degree varies from 12.1 enrolled quarters in Humanities to 13.5 in Engineering. (A standard 4-year program with no summer school would be 12 quarters.)

    The differences are largely in the number of courses required and the difficulty of the courses, though long prerequisite chains and insufficient seats in the large intro science and engineering courses (due to funding cuts so that courses that should be offered every quarter are only offered once a year) are also big contributors.

    The article talks about graduating students faster, not about making sure they learn anything. A big reason for the low 4-year graduation rate is that a lot of students come in having to do prealgebra and high-school level writing courses to compensate for bad education in K-12. If they have to do both high school and college, it is going to take more than 4 years.


  4. Well, I think the people behind that report would be fine with just giving them a high school education while in college, as long as they can be pumped out in 4 years


  5. I didn’t realize that many engineering programs required more than 120 hours.

    A lot of this boils down to student unprepared to do college work.


  6. I don’t think unpreparedness is the problem for most engineering programs. I think that industry just expects graduates from those programs to know a lot, and ABET reflects that. It is a huge problem in computer science. There is so much you need to know to be effective as a software developer, far more than can be crammed into people’s heads in 4 years. I have been going through the latest iteration of the ACM ‘s recommended curriculum, and it would make your head spin. Yet, I know from having worked in industry that it is all in fact important.

    I go to the national CS education conference, and there are always sessions on accreditation standards. This year, the hot topic is security. They want us to all “infuse” security topics into the rest of the CS curriculum. I could see everyone in the room looking at each other, sighing, asking “where the — are we going to shove THAT into our overloaded courses???”. And yet, security is critical.

    I know some people going through nursing school right now who tell me it is similarly jampacked, with no room for wriggling on anything. And pharmacy, oh my god, pharmacy. Our pharmacy program is 201 credits and takes 6 years. At least they come out with a PharmD degree. I have collaborated a lot with someone in that program, and have gotten a real sense of how constrained and rigid that program is.


  7. Not only do engineering programs typically require more than 120 credits (I think closer to 130 is more typical), a lot of general education requirements are cut (e.g., foreign language) to fit the necessary engineering coursework.

    A big part of the problem seems to be a lack of understanding of basic math. At local flagship U, they’ve recently instituted a program to encourage students to take at least 15 credits per semester so they can graduate in 4 years. I guess most students can’t divide 120 by 8 semesters to realize that it’ll take longer than 3 years to graduate if they take fewer than 15 credits.


  8. Oops, that should be, “longer than 4 years.” I was typing blind for the last couple of lines.


  9. Our “standard load” is 15 units a quarter, for a nominal total of 180 units in 4 years. The bioengineering degree has about 165 units of required courses, but there are also about 45 units in general ed courses not covered by the required courses for the major, resulting in a total of about 210 units, or 14 quarters instead of 12. Most engineering students have to take more than a 15-unit load, since lab courses are paired with lecture courses—a typical load is 17 units instead of 15. (But the average needs to be 17.5 to finish in 4 years.)

    The students who finish “on time” generally have a few AP credits to apply either to calculus or to some of the general education requirements.


  10. This discussion about STEM requirements makes me wonder if we’ll soon see some of these degrees change to 5 or 6 year programs, as pharmacy and architecture seem to have become.


  11. I just checked our major, and it is 126 credits total, and that is absolutely going to increase because we want ABET.

    There has been talk of making engineering a 5 year program since I was in school, back in the dino days, and it has never happened yet.


  12. I don’t remember that there was anything official about any degree program being a 4-year program or an n-year program. It was more like, here is what you need to graduate,. you can graduate when you finish all of it.

    As GSwoP mentions, those who graduate in 4 years typically didn’t just take the total number of credts/8 semesters every semester. Besides AP credits, some other ways people were able to graduate in 4 years included CC classes in HS; summer school; and taking heavier loads early, especially freshman year, when many classes are general education.


  13. “126 credits total”

    So I imagine anyone who graduates in 4 years is doing some of the things Finn mentions in his last comment — AP and more.


  14. Olin makes you put your money on the line as far as engineering majors graduating in 4 years. All students get a 50% tuition scholarship for 8 semesters. After 8 semesters in attendance, you have to pay full tuition. That’s the equivalent of a $20,000 a year increase in cost. It makes people think about it pretty seriously.

    When my daughter filed paperwork to do study abroad this semester, she had to certify at least 2 times in 2 different ways that she would still graduate on time (they paid her study abroad tuition).

    Some students don’t graduate in 4 calendar years, but in most cases it’s because they’ve taken a Leave of Absence (LOA), so they still graduate in 8 semesters. One of my daughter’s friends is doing an internship this spring. Other students have been working with a university in Brazil to setup their engineering program. They’re all doing LOA to not impact their scholarship.


  15. Olin is top on this list of highest 4-year graduation rates:

    I observed first-hand the extraordinary efforts of another school on this list. Besides a very hands-on advisory approach and help in scheduling needed classes, I know that in one case they were willing to offer significant flexibility in substituting an individualized project for a missing course and actually back-date the official graduation date. I’m sure other schools do similar things, but it’s also important to keep in mind that these elite schools typically have very able students from families that strongly support college graduation.


  16. ” actually back-date the official graduation date” It’s easy to get a high 4-year graduation rate if you lie about when people graduate.


  17. Grace, if you do a lot of substituting like that, your school will lose ABET accreditation the next time up. We had been doing substitutions to get the kids through, and have been warned. And for good reason. If you say your major contains particular coursework, you need to graduate kids who have had that coursework. Employers expect that. I think in STEM, we have to be mindful of employer expectations. And back dating – that is dishonest.


  18. Let me correct a mistake in the terminology I used. I used the term “back-date” as a shorthand for the school’s way of handling what is probably a legitimate administrative policy, to give them the benefit of the doubt. The student was scheduled to graduate in June, but was caught short of one class credit. The work was made up before the (supposedly) August graduation date, so as I understand it his degree has a June date. Now, this may be a completely reasonable way of handling graduation dates according to their policies, which may be common among many colleges. Given the arcane rules for the many polices governing student behavior, i would not be surprised to find this is not uncommon. Perhaps those of you in academia know otherwise. And as i understand it, it was course work outside his major, having to do with a mix-up about AP credit.

    “these elite schools typically have very able students from families that strongly support college graduation”

    Students whose families are very involved in seeing their children graduate on time have a big advantage. I suspended most of my helicopter parenting during my kid’s college days, but one area where I kept close tabs was on keeping him on track for graduation. I bugged him to repeatedly meet with his advisor, and made sure he confirmed details about outstanding requirements through confirmation emails and copies of school documents. I had him send me copies of all these. And I didn’t buy my airline ticket to attend graduation ceremonies until I saw the email confirming he was on the list to participate. 🙂


  19. Colleges routine let students “walk” at graduation ceremonies even if they are short one course, but the diploma should not be issued until the work is completed, and should be dated with a date on or after the completion of the work. If the student got a diploma with an August date or just a year, everything is fine. If they are claiming a 4-year graduation for a duration of ≤48 months, everything is fine. But if they were putting a June graduation date on an August completion, then they are lying.


  20. I had one more thought here. We keep trying to churn students through in 4 years and 120 credits; yet, the programs that produce graduates who actually can get jobs are the ones that ignore that and require far more credits. Perhaps we need to quit worrying about some arbitrary number of years/credits, and instead focus on designing programs that actually teach students enough to make them employable in their chosen field. If it takes 5 years to teach students enough computer science to allow them to get good jobs, then so be it. I worry that if we try to design programs that churn students through in 4 years/120 credits, we will end up producing lots of barristas and supermarket baggers.


  21. “Colleges routine let students “walk” at graduation ceremonies even if they are short one course”

    Interestingly, in the example I gave the college did not allow the student to participate in the graduation ceremony with the rest of his class.

    “But if they were putting a June graduation date on an August completion, then they are lying.”

    They may not have been. What I was trying to explain was that the school policy may be that any completion before the next graduation date (August) is counted in the previous graduation date (June). That seems reasonable. But now I realize that I made a mistake by giving this example, since I only have the student’s side of the story. For all I know, the official graduation date may be August, although I was told that it was June. But maybe there was misunderstanding on the student’s part.


  22. “I worry that if we try to design programs that churn students through in 4 years/120 credits, we will end up producing lots of barristas and supermarket baggers.”

    And I don’t see much change in the push to complete in 4 years, at least as long as a main driver is withholding government aid for students who take longer.


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