Most College Students Do Not Finish A Degree In Four Years, According To New Research

By Annie Wood
This article first appeared on

Like many students, Paul Dirks was encouraged to take general education courses as a freshman at North Dakota State University. When he transferred to the University of Minnesota after his first year, he found that not all of his generals or major class credits would transfer. While he was on track at NDSU, he was already behind at the University of Minnesota.

Dirks is midway through his fifth year now, and he’s not alone in taking extra time to graduate from a four-year public university. A new report from Complete College America reveals that at public universities, only about 19 percent of full-time students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years. Even at selective, research-intensive state flagship universities like the University of Minnesota, only 39 percent of students are graduating on time.

Nationally, only 50 out of over 580 public four-year schools see a majority of their full-time students graduate on time.

The report, called “The Four-Year Myth” recognizes that for students and families, time is money. “The reality is that our system of higher education costs too much, takes too long and graduates too few,” Complete College America states.

Researchers found that an extra year, on average, costs $22,826 in tuition and fees, room and board, books, transportation, and other expenses. Students also lose out on post-graduate wages—about $45,327—for graduating late. The overall real cost of taking an extra year to graduate? A whopping $68,153.

The report found that two extra years on campus increased debt by 70 percent among students who borrow, according to the report’s examination of Temple University and the University of Texas-Austin.

The report attributes some of the slow student progress to credits lost in transfers. While 60 percent of students transfer colleges, credits often do not transfer between colleges.

Another problem identified by the report is the plethora of classes offered and a lack of direction from counselors. Students are often overwhelmed “with an enormous cafeteria of possibilities in the college curriculum,” and often counselors are too short-staffed to be able to help them navigate and plan their course.

Dirks says his academic advisers allowed and even somewhat encouraged him to get off-track from his mathematics major. “Whenever I expressed any kind of interest in courses outside of my major, rather than take two math classes concurrently—which was normal to do—I felt a great encouragement to explore classes outside of my major. And now I’m paying for that because I’m taking three upper-division classes at a time.”

In his fifth year, Dirks says, he’s stuck in the most challenging classes of his college career concentrated into his final two semesters. If he didn’t stack these classes in now, he would likely have to take another year.

Dirks will have a math major and German minor by the time he graduates, though he’ll have an excess of credits. “I’ll have 170 by the time I graduate and I’ve never failed a class.” Still, he could not have graduated in four years. For reference, the University of Minnesota requires a minimum of 120 credits to graduate.

Additionally, his advisers seemed nonchalant about the financial burden of a fifth year. “They said, ‘Well that happens all the time now,’ almost like it was being justified by them. They rationalized it,” Dirks said.

Unfortunately, getting a four-year degree in more than four years has become the new norm. Education policy experts are now regularly using six year-benchmarks to earn a bachelor’s degree and three years for an associate degree.

The report’s findings for community colleges are even worse: only 5 percent of full-time students graduated within two years with an associate degree, and only about 16 percent earned a certificate on time within one to two years.

College and credit transfers aside, the need for remedial coursework also has an impact on the amount of time spent in college. According to the report, 1.7 million students start out college in remediation, including a majority of community college students. Only one in ten remedial students ever graduate.

As the nation’s overall student loan debt has surpassed $1.2 trillion, it is time to take a hard look at factors driving up the cost of attaining a degree. The fact that finishing in four years—the intended amount of time for a bachelor’s degree—is being called a “myth” is telling of a complex web of problems. In the wake of their new findings, Complete College America is urging colleges to create pathways and structures to ensure students can finish on time.

“I know people who have gone into an extra semester. It wasn’t necessarily necessary,” Dirks said. With even just an extra semester at a public university costing thousands of dollars, it turns out most public college students are having to pay more for their four-year degrees than they bargained for.

Annie Wood is a Student Debt Reporter at Generation Progress. Follow her on Twitter @anniewood28.

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