The Myth of the Four-Year College Degree

Though college is typically billed as a four-year experience, most students actually need much longer to earn a bachelor's degree.

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Another graduation ceremony has come and gone, and Chauncey Woodard is still a student at the University of Alabama. He came to UA in the spring of 2008 after some time in community college, expecting to spend, at most, four years at the school. After being forced to take a semester off in 2010 to save up more money for his education, he expects to graduate in August 2013 at the earliest.

“For me to get my education, I either have to go deep in debt or drag it out like I’m doing now,” Woodard, a construction-engineering major, says. “You get to see a lot of people move on, and you’re still here. That kind of gets to you around graduation.”

Woodard’s not alone in extending his university studies beyond a typical senior year. While undergraduate education is typically billed as a four-year experience, many students, particularly at public universities, actually take five, six or even more years to attain a degree. According to the Department of Education, fewer than 40% of students who enter college each year graduate within four years, while almost 60% of students graduate in six years. At public schools, less than a third of students graduate on time.

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“It’s a huge issue for society,” says Matthew Chingos, an author of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. “It’s a huge issue for the individual students who are spending more money on tuition than they need to. The longer they wait to graduate and get a job, those are extra years of their careers when they’re in college and not working and not making money.” Chingos points out that delayed graduation at public schools also affects taxpayers who are subsidizing students’ education.

Reasons for delaying graduation are numerous. For students who choose to participate in co-ops or internships during the school year, it can be tough to fit in all the necessary courses. Overcrowded classes can make it impossible for students to fulfill degree requirements in a timely manner. And the common practice of changing majors midway through college can make a four-year degree impractical.

For schools themselves, there are advantages to shuttling students through efficiently. Four-year graduation rates can affect colleges’ national rankings, which are used heavily in recruiting students. A shorter time to degree also means more students receive an education from a given school, and it can potentially mean a less crowded campus.

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At Purdue University, improving the four-year graduation rate is a priority for administrators. The school hopes to improve its four-year rate from 42% to 50% by 2014 and to 70% in the coming decade. “The biggest thing we can do to lower cost is make sure that every student who wants to finish in four years has the ability do so,” says Tim Sands, acting president of Purdue. “If we can increase our graduation rate and decrease time to degree modestly … we give more students an opportunity to get a Purdue degree.”

In recent years Purdue has launched a battery of exploratory courses across disciplines to help students get a better idea of their interests before they commit to a major. An academic boot camp in the summer before freshman year is aimed at students who didn’t have access to advanced courses in high school to ensure they’ll be prepared for college coursework. The school is even considering switching to a trimester system, which would aim to shorten students’ time to degree by making more courses available during the summer months.

Other schools have also adopted inventive methods to promote graduating in four years. At the University of North Carolina, where the four-year graduation rate exceeds 80%, students must graduate in eight regular semesters to have additional majors and minors recognized on their transcripts.

“We decided that we would embrace the fact that we are a four-year university,” says Bobbi Owen, UNC’s senior associate dean for undergraduate education. “If you look at the statistics, something like 29,000 students applied to be part of the fall entering class in 2012. If there’s that many students seeking 3,900 spaces in a class, if the seniors are graduating, you actually have room to bring in those 3,900 students.”

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With schools focused on getting students through, the national four-year graduation rate has crept upward in recent years, from 34% of the 1996 starting cohort to 39% of the 2005 starting cohort. Still, schools acknowledge that there’s more they could do.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Purdue’s Sands says. He recommends that students take advantage of advisers and career counselors starting in their freshman year so that they can develop a coherent plan for their time in college, whether it be short or long. “Don’t just go semester to semester. Really think ahead. If they do that right off the bat, they’re much more likely to be successful and complete their studies in a reasonable amount of time.”