Say Good-bye to the Four-Year College Degree

Thanks to high costs and unprepared students, the college years are dragging on.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Sep 23, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s a college norm as common as football game-day tailgating and frat-party keg stands: the expectation that it will take four years of rigorous study for a student to go from freshman to graduate, give or take a semester off.

However, a new report on college completion by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates that less than half of all full-time college students at public universities earn their bachelor’s degrees “on time,” with the majority finishing more than five years after they enroll. The rate of degree completion is even worse at community colleges, with just 5 percent of full-time students reaching graduation day within the expected two years. The study also concludes that the longer a student spends in college, the more likely he or she is to drop out.

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“The change in traditional timelines for college completion can become expensive when viewed in terms of college costs, taxpayers’ subsidies, and the wages students forfeit with each additional semester of enrollment,” reads the report, Time to Degree: A National View of the Time Enrolled and Elapsed for Associate and Bachelor’s Degree Earners.

“Although the majority of postsecondary students are now taking longer to complete college,” the report’s authors write, “extended periods of enrollment are even more common for students who are academically unprepared at the start,” requiring remedial education that drives up costs even further.

The Virginia-based clearinghouse analyzed college completion data for roughly 2 million recent graduates. It found that full-time students graduating between July 2014 and June 2015 from a four-year public college or university took an average of 5.2 academic years to earn their diplomas. Their private college or university peers were slightly better off, spending an average of 4.8 academic years to earn their degrees. Meanwhile, attendees of private, for-profit institutions took an average of 5.8 academic years to finish.

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The reasons for the 30-year trend are complex and varied, according to the report, but two stand out: More students are unprepared for college and have to take remedial courses, while others are struggling to pay the spiraling cost of tuition.

Students taking longer to finish school must be considered a national priority, Julie Ajinkya, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, told TakePart. If students can’t finish college on time or drop out because they can’t afford to finish, the nation will fall short of the educated workers it needs to compete in the tech-driven global economy.

“This means that college affordability has become a huge problem” that needs immediate attention, Ajinkya said. “We’ve known this for a while. But it’s becoming a national crisis if folks who need [postsecondary] education can’t afford to get it.”

Rising college costs putting higher education out of reach and students who graduate from high school but are unprepared for college have become major issues for the nation at a time when roughly half of all well-paying jobs require some postsecondary education or technical training.

While the middle class grapples with affordability, however, lower-income college students—who are largely African American or Latino and typically graduate from high schools in struggling, underserved districts—are at risk of getting left behind as the new economy surges ahead.

Last December, students at 120 colleges nationwide hit the streets to demand reform, and college affordability has become a campaign issue. Yet remedial education has become a hidden cost of higher education: About one in four incoming college freshmen are instructed to take remedial classes at full expense and without credit toward graduation, a requirement that adds roughly $1.5 billion to tuition costs nationwide.

The cost of attending college “goes beyond tuition and books,” Ajinkya said. Housing, meal plans, and fees, she said, add to the “sticker shock” of a four-year bachelor’s degree, which can soar into the mid–five figures even at a state or public university.

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While community college is more affordable, it isn’t cheap: Books can cost hundreds of dollars each, on top of per-credit-hour tuition that’s been steadily rising.

Meanwhile, in a recent survey of college dropouts, Ajinkya said, “affordability is one of the highest-ranking reasons” students quit school. “We’re allowing students to fall prey” to higher-education costs that are nearly out of control.

There are answers, Ajinkya said, including high school programs that allow students to earn college credits and college programs that give returning students credits toward graduation for on-the-job skills and life experience. Colleges and universities need to kick in too by increasing financial aid and encouraging struggling students to “take advantage of all the [resources] at their disposal.”

At the same time, she said, education reform advocates and elected officials need to push for more investment in higher education—including more money for public universities and community colleges and beefing up grants and student financial aid. While the results may not be immediately apparent, the spending will pay dividends for the students in the short run—and help the nation regain its competitive advantage in the global economy.

“It’s a national imperative that I constantly refer to in my work,” Ajinkya said. If today’s students aren’t properly educated, “they’re not going to be able to help us in the future. It’s an investment in our national growth.”