Many college students in the U.S. do not graduate on time, a trend that is the focus of a recent report titled "The Four-Year Myth," released by the nonprofit group Complete College America. The report's authors propose a number of curricular and policy reforms to shorten students' time to degree and help them contain their college costs.
Education professor Jennifer A. Delaney, an expert in higher education funding at the University of Illinois, discussed those proposed reforms with News Bureau Education Editor Sharita Forrest.
According to Complete College America's report, it's the standard at U.S. colleges and universities for students to take six years to earn a bachelor's degree, primarily because students take a number of courses that don't apply toward graduation or don't transfer between institutions. Does the report accurately characterize the problem, or are other factors driving this trend?
There's value in the report and in thinking about containing college costs. Currently, many students don't graduate on time, and that's very costly in terms of tuition and foregone earnings.
The report estimates that each additional year a student attends a four-year institution in Illinois but does not graduate costs $71,810, which includes both the costs of attendance and lost wages from not being in the labor market.
Complete College America's focus is improving graduation rates and shortening time to degree to ensure more students graduate. However, they don't fully analyze all of the reasons why time to degree is lengthening - and it's not the only driver of tuition costs and educational loan debt.
Some of it is just changing demographics: We have more returning adult students, who are working full time, and their life situations make it difficult to be a traditional full-time student and graduate on time.
The report is good at highlighting that taking longer to graduate comes at a greater financial cost. And the longer a student takes to get a degree reduces the odds that they will actually complete it.
The authors propose implementing guided academic pathways to constrain students' choices, so they only take courses that count toward their degrees. Moreover, the report recommends mandating that students take 15 credit hours each semester to help them graduate faster. Are these viable solutions?
Considering 15 credits to be full time is one of Complete College America's "game changers," what they see as the solutions to too few students getting degrees. They argue that if more students took 15 credits per semester, more of them would graduate on time, and the total costs of their degrees would fall.
Many institutions have moved to block pricing, where tuition is the same for some range of credit hours, such as 12 to 18. Twelve credits a semester is considered full time at many colleges and for many financial aid programs.
But if students only take 12 credits a semester and no summer courses, they will not complete 120 credits to obtain a bachelor's degree, or 60 credits for an associate degree, within four or two years, respectively.
Not every student can take 15 credits every semester. Twelve credits may be more realistic for some full-time students, given the other demands of their lives.
Another of Complete College America's game changers is guided pathways, which are structured programs of study.
The pathways restrict student choice and can suppress their ability to explore majors, take courses on subjects they're curious about and perhaps find new paths in life. These concerns make guided pathways controversial.
The report also calls for guided pathways to encourage institutions to ensure that courses are available when students need to take them.
How does Illinois fare by comparison with other states and, as a scholar of higher education, do the data in the report raise any concerns with you?
Illinois is not doing that badly compared with other states. However, it's still not the norm for students to graduate on time.
According to the report, only 6 percent of students in certificate programs, 10 percent of students earning associate degrees, and 26 percent of students in bachelor's programs at non-flagship campuses in Illinois graduate on time. Statewide, flagship universities are doing best - 59 percent of their students graduate on time.
(Note: Currently, at the U. of I.'s Urbana campus, about 68 percent of undergraduate students and 82 percent of transfer students graduate within four years. Almost 84 percent of all undergraduate students earn degrees within six years, according to the most recent statistics from the University Office of Planning and Budgeting.)
However, when you look at that data by race and by income, the disparities are concerning. The on-time graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic full-time students at Illinois' flagship universities are 42 percent and 36 percent respectively. Full-time students who receive Pell grants at flagship institutions average 56 percent.
The report highlights real stratification within our higher education systems.
Generally there is more money per student at research institutions and less at community colleges, so institutions are stratified, and students are stratified into these institutions. You're more likely to find a low-income student or student of color at a community college than at a four-year institution.
By attending less selective or two-year institutions, students are less likely to earn a degree and to graduate on time. Where you go to college really matters, in terms of what resources are available to you.
"The Four-Year Myth" is available online here.