At public universities, the four year bachelor’s degree exists far more in theory than in practice. The NYT reports on a new study finding that only 19 percent of full-time students at “most” public universities finish their degree in four-years—the rest take longer (h/t Ben Domenech). Even when you narrow the field down to “state flagship universities” only 36 percent of students finish in four years. The four-year graduation late is so low that policy experts factor a baseline six-year bachelor’s degree into their studies and research. More:
“Using these metrics may improve the numbers, but 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.” […]
Tuition borrowers who do not graduate on time take on far more debt in their extra years, the report found. According to data from Temple University in Philadelphia and from the University of Texas, Austin, two extra years on campus increases debt by nearly 70 percent.
The report suggests some obvious reasons for this trend—students taking too light a course load during each semester, for example. Others are administrative failures on the part of the universities, like restrictions on students’ ability to sign up for classes, or on credits that can be transferred from school to school. One reason the report gives is particularly striking: large course catalogs overwhelm students who lack guidance from adults who can help them choose a course of study. These are all particular failures on the part of colleges that can and should be fixed, but the story is notable because it shows how widely higher ed actually diverges from the ambient beliefs about it (for instance, that it lasts four years). To make higher ed work better for everyone, time spent in educational institutions should trend shorter rather than longer, so the fact that the baseline expectation is now six years for a B.A. is not encouraging.