• August 30, 2015

Helping Students Complete Degrees On Time

Speakers at a conference that opened here on Wednesday discussed policies and practices that states and colleges are using or considering to help more students complete an undergraduate degree or credential in a timely way.

The conference, "Time to Completion: How States and Systems Are Tackling the Time Dilemma," was organized by two nonprofit organizations, Jobs for the Future and the Southern Regional Education Board, whose goals include broadening college access and making higher education more affordable.

At the opening of the two-day event on Wednesday, officials with the Southern Regional Educational Board said they planned to start tracking the length of time it takes students in the organization's 16 member states to earn credits toward graduation.

Officials with Jobs for the Future announced new online tools the group is putting together to help institutions, system officers, and policy makers better understand different aspects of time-to-completion issues.

At one session, "Completion and Time: Research, Policy, and Politics," an economist presented findings from a study of national data showing that over all, students are taking longer to complete a four-year degree.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the proportion of students who completed a bachelor's degree in four years shrank by 13 percentage points, said Sarah Turner, a professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia and the author of the research.

These days earning a bachelor's degree takes at least five years, Ms. Turner said.

The decline, however, was found mostly at public four-year universities that are not flagship institutions, she said. In fact, at highly selective private institutions, the number of students completing their degrees in four years increased by 8 percent between 1972 and 1992.

"This is very much a story of stratification," Ms. Turner said.

One explanation for the decline at public colleges, Ms. Turner suggested, is that students today often find it hard to finance their educations and have to work during college. Work is crowding students' time to take courses.

She offered a few policy suggestions, such as encouraging colleges to use early-assessment programs that provide students with information on how to complete their degrees on time.

At the same session, Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a nonprofit group that works with states to increase college access and the number of degree earners, said institutions were not designed for working students, a group he called the "emerging new majority."

Working students tend not to have strong high-school backgrounds and usually attend college part time rather than full time, he said. "Yet we put them into the same system as other students and are disappointed that we don't get good results."

Mr. Jones advocates scheduling classes in a convenient block of time to make it easier for students with work and family commitments to attend and help them graduate faster.

"Time is really the enemy," he said.

Research shows that it now takes part-time students five years to complete a two-year degree, he said. The longer it takes students to complete their degrees, he said, the more likely it is that they will lose the motivation to do so.


1. usaret - October 07, 2010 at 08:39 am

I was thinking about this very issue on the way to work this morning (I teach English full-time at a community college). But I would like to expand the scope of the discussion by asking why the "working students tend not to have strong high-school backgrounds" issue is not addressed in high schools, where it should be. Why should higher ed have to pick up the pieces that the K-12 system cannot seem to accomplish?

I think that one of the major issues, if not THE major issue, is the idea that high school is four years, and that graduating with one's high school class is so important that all other academic issues get subsumed in the rush to get kids through. If we demanded that students master a certain skill set before taking a HS diploma, perhaps they would not be so unprepared for college work. This is a much larger and more complex issue than simply trashing NCLB, our favorite whipping boy--it requires a wholesale change in public attitudes towards the high school experience.

I should add that my daughter was a special ed kid all through K-12, and almost every HS course was adapted in one way or another to help her complete the course but not master the material. She's now a fairly successful community college student, mainly because of our college's four-semester remedial reading program.

But the real question is why should the higher ed system have to bear the burden of the massive amount of remediation we have to do? Over a third of our campus' students require one or more developmental courses, and at some of our other campuses the percentage exceeds 70. This is unsustainable in the long run--and I think fixing the high school experience is really the place to start.

2. russhunt - October 07, 2010 at 09:01 am

There's something pathetically predictable about the rush to finish "on time." The problem isn't that many people don't finish in a four-year dash (rich people do, in fact, as the evidence demonstrates): it's the dash itself. People don't finish "on time" because they need to work to support themselves; and people who don't finish in a straight four-year dash are discriminated against by the structure of the system and by social expectations. If we set up systems to allow for people to take the time they need, and stopped assuming (and building the assumption into social structures) that anybody slower must be somehow inferior, this problem would disappear. (The larger, underlying problem -- that higher education has been made into an elite consumer good -- wouldn't, of course, but at least this symptom would.)

3. 11298847 - October 07, 2010 at 09:52 am

Jobs for the Future (JFF) has released tools that colleges can use to collect institutional data to analyze time to completion for students, and explore relevant policies, as well as a tool to calculate costs of extended time(soon to come). The aim is to enable institutions to gather more information about barriers and supports to timely completion.
Data can help in the quest for better results. For example, perhaps students would work a bit harder if they knew their likelihood of completing a degree declines by 40 percent if they do not pass gatekeeper math in the first two years of college. And if institutions set a public goal of, say, getting half of their students through college math in year one, they might deploy their resources more strategically to make this happen.

To access these tools, visit http://www.collegeproductivity.org/TTCtooloverview

4. wtferguson - October 07, 2010 at 10:59 am

As a college student myself, I can say that graduating in 4 years is a daunting task. I'm currently in my 5th year. Throughout my time I stumbled across this website MyEdu that actually gives students certain tools to help with this very problem. They have a "Degree Timeline" that allows students to track their progress on a semester-by-semester basis. Unfortunately, I didn't discover this until my 3rd year. However, since I've been using it I have been able to track my classes and see visually how close I am to graduating. Although 5 years isn't the norm, that website helped me a ton. If only I had discovered it my first year...

5. frankietx - October 07, 2010 at 11:15 am

What's wrong with graduating after five or more years? In the big scheme of things does one or two years really make a difference? I would much rather hire someone who has a degree AND spent time working her way through college than some kid who raced through in four years on mom and dad's dime and doesn't know how to work for a living.

6. jrllanes - October 07, 2010 at 11:26 am

In the U.S. where 4 year baccalaureate is the expectation, 4.97 years is the reality. In Europe where 3 year baccalaureate is the expectation, 3.50 is the reality. Read more about it at:

7. caccfaculty - October 07, 2010 at 12:09 pm

I also don't understand why we need to push so hard for the completion in four years. Or two for a community college degree. I took a total of five years to complete my BS, with one year at a community college before transferring, then six months participating in a Cooperative Education program (paid internship for full time work). This was the best thing I could have done because the internship led me to change my major, which required a bit of extra time to complete. I also worked part time during all but my very last semester.

The big question is, for those students who DO need to take a bit longer due to a variety of life's circumstances, what can we do to keep them motivated and to make sure our college's services, schedules or budget constraints are not getting in their way.

Other than that, it takes as long as it takes and many students are perfectly happy with the situation.

8. pjnyc - October 07, 2010 at 12:46 pm

1972-1992? That's some old data, there. What's the point in drawing a conclusion about what's happening now from 18-year old data?

9. mmginger - October 07, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I am in agreement with russhunt and caccfaculty. Every college student has a unique set of circumstances today coupled with stressful economic factors and an educational system that is focused more on timelines vs. mastery or passion for learning and interests. Many recent college graduates are wondering now what the big rush was for completion, only to emerge in a very dismal job market ... to the point where they have determined they "may as well go back to school" and get their Master's since they can't find good jobs. Learning, discovery, and application go hand-in-hand, and those students who have the opportunity to experience all of these facets during formal education years are those who are most prepared in carving out their chosen careers.

Mr. Jones statement that "working students tend not to have strong high-school backgrounds and usually attend college part time rather than full time" is not reflective of today's economic times or college students. I know many, many students (including my two college sons) who had very strong academic high school backgrounds (4.0 GPA) and both currently work and attend college (community and university) full-time. It's a reality of the "new" traditional college student, and we must find ways to better align the educational system (K-20), intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors, and our own perceptions so that students receive ongoing and meaningful support no matter how long it take for college completion.

10. cerebellum - October 07, 2010 at 02:38 pm

The last sentence of this piece says it all: "The longer it takes students to complete their degrees, he said, the more likely it is that they will lose the motivation to do so."

Aside from getting discouraged, the longer it takes to get a degree, the more likely that "life" will get in the way: family issues, illness etc.

Taking a long time to complete a degree also means that the student may move several times, resulting in loss of credit due to transfers, lengthening the time to degree completion even more.

11. drj50 - October 07, 2010 at 03:35 pm

Money is a large factor, but not the only one.

At my mid-sized, public university, half of students graduate in a different major than the one in which they entered (not counting those who enter "undeclared"). Professional programs often have structured curricula (sequences of courses) that make it almost impossible to graduate in four years if students change majors after the first semester or year. Such curricula also make it difficult for students to finish in four years if they study abroad or take a semester off for an intensive internship.

Not all nine- or ten-semester graduates represent some sort of "failure" of the system. We will see more clearly how to address the true challenges when we make some crucial distinctions between time-to-degree for poorly prepared students, lower-income students, major-changers, and others.

12. diehl - October 07, 2010 at 09:49 pm

The colleges that have the highest graduation rates and some of the lowest tuition rates have invested in their full-time professors over the long run. They have few part-time, adjunct faculty members and most of their operating costs go to instruction. A high percentage of their total salary budget goes to full-time instructors and not to a highly paid administration. Their operating budget is heavy on instruction salaries and instructional support costs.

13. unireg - October 08, 2010 at 03:33 pm

As some have suggested, money is a big issue here. Someone asked what's the big deal about graduating in 5 or more years? With a majority of students borrowing to finance their education, and many of them borrowing about $6000 per year, this means that students are now taking out $30,000 in loans to finance their undergraduate education instead of $24,000.

14. optimysticynic - October 08, 2010 at 04:16 pm

Another factor: students often wake up and decide to get serious about their education and graduate school plans in their junior year. This almost always requires an additional semester or two (or three) in order to raise their grades, take prerequisite classes or establish research/practical experience. By pushing students to get out in four years, we are often discouraging them from developing to their potential and putting institutional goals ahead of the welfare of the student. Students rely on us for "disinterested" advice; when we discourage the extra time to facilitate their ultimate goals, we are acting selfishly, making our numbers look good at the students' expense.

15. fiscalsense - October 09, 2010 at 06:43 pm

There's nothing wrong with going part time in itself. The problem is that when students borrow the maximum allowed per term (which many do-for living expenses), they'll hit the aggregate loan limit in about 12 semesters but it will take 18 semesters for a bachelor's degree at half time (so they run out of loans before they finish). Keep in mind that many part timers are working full time and attendance may be as little as once a week (or online), so the idea of "living expenses" ceases to make sense, but this has been one of the loopholes allowed by Title IV funding.

16. wilcoxlibrary - October 11, 2010 at 11:06 am

I bet that you will find graduation rates match an indivduals ACT / SAT scores and institutional admissions standards.

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