What is “On Time” Graduation? Four Years is Becoming a Myth

You send your student off to college and assume that four years later he will graduate with a degree.  You plan on four years — and you work hard to budget for four years.  And then you realize that it may take your student longer than four years to graduate.  Why is your student the exception — not graduating on time?

It turns out that your student who may need five — or even six — years to graduate is not the exception, but the norm.  A recent report, Four —Year Myth, released by the organization Complete College America points to this new direction in higher education.  The information is sobering, and important for college parents to understand.

Whose report is this?

Complete College America is a national nonprofit organization established in 2009 with the mission of working with the states to ”significantly increase the number of Americans with college degrees and to close the attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.”

According to this organization, between 1970 and 2009, undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. more than doubled, while the completion rate has remained unchanged.  Clearly, more students are gaining access to college, but not completing their degrees.

Complete College America has created an ”Alliance of States” to take a look at the data, recognize student challenges, and obtain commitments to move forward.  Thirty-five governors have committed to the project to equally value access and success.  (Check the member list here to see whether your state is included.)

What did they find?

The national standard used by the federal government for measuring college completion is now 3 years for a 2-year Associate’s Degree and 6 years for a 4-year Bachelor’s Degree.  There is the recognition that many students do not complete their degree ”on time.”  According to Complete College America, only 5% of full-time students complete an Associate’s degree in 2 years (on-time) and 19-36% (depending on the type of school) of full-time students complete their 4-year degree in four years (on-time). Of 580 public 4-year institutions in the U.S., only 50 had more than 50% of their students graduate on-time.

For many parents, and others, this accepted standard is unacceptable.  Extra time needed toward a degree equals extra money needed to fund the education as well as time of lost wages earned. According to CCA, ”borrowers who do not graduate on time take on far more debt in years 5 and 6. . . As scholarships and savings run out, students and their families are left to borrow more of the costs to attending school.”

Of course, it is important to keep in mind that for some students, for any number of valid reasons, a longer timetable may be appropriate.  Each student, parent, and family needs to evaluate carefully the best path for that student.  However, when the majority of students need significantly more time to graduate, the issue needs to be addressed.

What causes the problem?

There are many factors that can lead to the need for additional time for students to complete their degree and there are no easy solutions.  If the answers were easy and obvious, the problems might have been addressed by now.  Complete College America points out several potential issues.

  • Transfer credits lost. According to the Department of Education, close to 60% of college students will attend more than one institution before they graduate. Often, when students transfer, some credits are not accepted by the new institution.
  • Unavailability of critical courses. At many institutions, not every class is offered every semester. Students who miss the rotation may need to wait for the course to be offered again.  If the required course is a pre-requisite for another course, significant time can be lost.
  • Uninformed choice of major. Many students wait to choose a major or change major. This can be appropriate, but in some cases may cost a student time.
  • Low credit accumulation. Students who do not complete an appropriate number of credits each semester will need longer to complete their degree.  Some students want to lighten their load to improve their GPA, or drop, withdraw from, or fail courses.
  • Remediation sequences. Students who begin college with significant deficits are often placed in remedial courses to improve skills. These developmental courses may be necessary, but often do not count toward graduation credits.
  • Excessive credits required. ”Standard” expectations are that students should complete 60 credits for an Associate’s degree and 120 credits for a Bachelor’s degree. Some schools or programs of study may require more.
  • Work/school balance. An additional factor is that as many as 75% of students are attempting to juggle school along with work and family responsibilities.  This may cause students to stop out, or withdraw from or fail classes.
  • It doesn’t seem that it can be a bad thing to have many choices, but research suggests that it is possible.  When people are confronted with many options, they tend to become paralyzed, make poor decisions, lose self-control, and become less satisfied with the decisions that they do make.  Perhaps students need fewer rather than many more options and choices.

So what can I do?

Complete College America is working nationally with the states to attempt to improve higher education outcomes for all students.  This is obviously important.  But that doesn’t mean that parents must, or should, sit back and wait.  Those who are politically inclined might lobby for change and improvement in their state.

However, much closer to home, parents can and must, work with their students to address those factors that can be within the student’s control. In our next post, we’ll examine those factors which can be game changers for students and their families.

Access the full Four-Year Myth report.

Related Posts:

The Path to Graduation: What’s Your Student’s Timeline?

Reasons Why Your Student May Not Graduate in Four Years

Will Your College Student Graduate On Time?

Do You Have a Super Senior?  Making the Most of the Fifth Year of College


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