Is the 4-Year Degree a Myth?

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Complete College America, a nonprofit based in Indianapolis, has reported in a study titled “Four Year Myth” that the majority of students at American public colleges do not graduate on time.

The report says that students and parents know that time is money. The reality is, according to the report, that the US system of higher education is too expensive, takes too long to accomplish, and graduates too few students, writes Tamar Lewin, reporting for The New York Times.

Many public universities see only 19% of full-time students working toward their bachelor’s degree earn their degrees in four years. At state universities, selective and research-intensive institutions, about 36% of full-time students receive their bachelor’s degrees on time.

Across the nation, there are only about 50 of the 580 public four-year schools which can boast that most full-time students complete their bachelor’s degrees in four years. There are several reasons why this is the case, including the inability to register for a needed course, credits lost due to transferring from another school, and remediation programs that do not work.

Community colleges numbers are even worse. Only 5% of full-time students earn an associate degree in the normal two-year cycle, and only 15.9% earned a one- to two-year certificate on time.

The problem has become so widespread that education policy experts now use six years to earn a bachelor’s degree and three years for an associate degree as a standard.

“Using these metrics may improve the numbers, but it is costing students and their parents billions of extra dollars — $15,933 more in cost of attendance for every extra year of a public two-year college and $22,826 for every extra year at a public four-year college,” the report said. “Hands down, our best strategy to make college more affordable and a sure way to boost graduation rates over all is to ensure that many more students graduate on time.”

The report noted that each year 1.7 million students begin their higher education needing remediation, which includes the majority of community college students. The statistics show that a mere one in 10 remedial students graduate at all.

Sixty percent of bachelor’s degree recipients move from one college to another, and, in that process, lose some of their credits. Another reason for the large number of lengthened college stays is the number of choices in college courses. Many 18-year-old graduates are overwhelmed by the voluminous choices and possibilities and do not have enough counselors around to assist them in charting their educational course. And, naturally, more time on campus means more student debt.

Along with that, says Ashely Dobson of Red Alert Politics, students lose wages they would have otherwise been earning, which Complete College America says is an estimated $35,000 for those pursuing an associate degree and $45,327 for those pursuing bachelor’s degrees.

According to the census bureau, public college students are a larger group than private school students by 2.6 to 1. Theoretically, even if every private school student finished school on time, there would still be a vast number of American college students taking extra time in higher education pursuits, the Smithsonian Magazine‘s Colin Schultz reports.

CNN reports that 40 million Americans have a student loan debt with an average value of $29,000. In total, that amounts to $1.2 trillion.