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Most College Students Don’t Graduate on Time

The vast majority of students take more than 4 years to earn a bachelor’s degree

(Kevin Dodge/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

From a purely dollars and cents perspective, going to college is an investment. Students are trading years of their working lives and tens of thousands of dollars (if not more) for the prospect of a better paying job in the future. But the economic valuation of a college degree loses some of its luster for every extra year students have to stay on campus. Yet as the New York Times reports, taking extra time to graduate has somehow become the norm—a trend that's only adding to student's often-crippling debt.

According to a report put out by Complete College America, a nonprofit organization, the vast majority of bachelor's degree students fail to graduate in the expected 4 years. Instead, says the Times, only 19 percent of undergraduate students graduate on time. At the community college level “the problem is even worse,” says the Times: “5 percent of full-time students earned an associate degree within two years, and 15.9 percent earned a one- to two-year certificate on time.”

Every extra year of tuition adds to the cost of getting educated, with students who stick around often adding to their accumulating debt.

The report only looked at public universities and college in the U.S., but according to the census bureau public college students outnumber private ones by roughly 2.6 to 1. Even if all private college students graduated on time, this would still mean the bulk of American college students are taking extra time. But with the often higher tution fees for private colleges, the extra costs would rack up even faster for students who take their time.

Part of the cause for student's slipping schedules is indecision, says the Times, with students switching schools or programs midstream. Some students don't take a full course load (perhaps because they're working part-time). But some of the delays are institutional: “Some of the causes of slow student progress, the report said, are inability to register for required courses, credits lost in transfer and remediation sequences that do not work.”

According to CNN, 40 million Americans are carrying student loan debt with an average value of $29,000, a cumulative sum of $1.2 trillion. 

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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