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The Cost of Higher Ed
The 4-Year Degree Is Largely Mythical

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.

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  • FriendlyGoat

    This all helps reinforce the idea that there is no better deal going for young people than opportunities for dual-credit high school courses wherever they exist. If a person can graduate from high school with an Associate’s (or equivalent) at the same time, how cool is THAT for saving both time and money. (For the students who can hack the rigor of those and who are going on to college, there remains the troubling implication, of course, that the non-dual-credit high school courses they might have otherwise been stuck in would have been a complete waste of time for them.)

  • Fat_Man

    Of course the colleges want them to stay more than four years. The colleges want to be sure that they have sucked every dime out of the students before they graduate.

  • DirtyJobsGuy

    My daughter completed an Honors program with a rigorous Geology degree in four years, but the trying part was the mandated diversity and other trendy courses. Her university wasn’t that weird but trying to fit these in with real study was about a semester’s work. She had the advantage of knowing what major she wanted to pursue from day one. I recommend to all students to declare a major as early as possible (knowing you might change later). It is really tough to do a well structured degree without starting early (and those diversity/international empathy courses just make it worse).

  • Dan Greene

    Interesting that the first reason cited for the six year BA was this: “students taking too light a course load during each semester.”

    I doubt the universities are the biggest problem here. Poorly prepared and insufficiently motivated students appear to be a the top of the list, based on this article.

  • Tom Chambers

    This is not a new problem; I was seeing it 15 years ago when I was an undergraduate advisor. There are multiple reasons. Some students are ‘non-traditional’ and some are parents themselves. Some students have part-time jobs and take lighter course loads in order to cope. Some students need remedial education courses before they can start the entry-level course requirements for a major. Course requirements for a major can be such a tight fit that even good students can find it hard to complete them in 8 semesters. Limited-size course sections may mean that unlucky students are forced to postpone taking a prerequisite course for a semester or for a year, throwing their whole course plan out of whack.
    Let’s hope that online courses can help remedy this.

  • M. Thompson

    1. There’s the array of courses that must be met to reach liberal education goals. Those seem to go up every few years. Right now, my university has a 40 credits required for general education. Some of those goals may be met by major requirements, though.

    2. Expanded credit requirements. As an example, right now, the American Institute of CPA’s recommends 150 credit hours to stand for the test. All states but California, Colorado, Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont and the Virgin Islands have implemented this requirement. As a result, many Accounting students are taking either a double major or a Master’s program. It’s pretty much requirement inflation. I’m wondering if at some point this will be common in other areas (Teacher requiring more just for a license, etc.)

    3. We’re leaving the idea of college as being a chance to get knowledge for it’s own sake to one where it is for learning a skill set. This will mean that students should take more focused classes schedules rather than ones taking a little of everything.

  • GFFM

    My daughter and the great majority of her peers all graduated in 4 years. Furthermore, I am a college professor and all of my advisers are graduating in 4 and all are doing internships as well. The 4 year degree is not a myth; it happens all the time and can be done. In fact, because students do not want to go into even more debt many are trying to finish in 3 1/2.

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