The Four-Year Graduation Myth

Time Magazine recently ran a story about the myth of four-year college degree. More than two years ago, I published a similar story for Newsweek but after its merger with The DailyBeast, the copy sadly fell off the website. I worked on this feature for more than two months, interviewing students, parents, educators and authors. Republishing it here because the conversation is back – and it’s an important one.

Previously published on, November 11, 2010

With trying economic times, finishing an undergraduate degree in four years is becoming tougher than ever.
by Farnoosh Torabi November 11, 2010

Kiyan Rajabi, 19, a pharmacology major at University of California, Santa Barbara, was
excited about his study-abroad program in Spain this fall. His plans were foiled, however,
when earlier this year he realized that a basic biochemistry course he needed as a
prerequisite for higher-level science classes was offered only in the fall. If Rajabi didn’t
stay put in Santa Barbara, he was likely looking at an extra year of college. Barcelona and
the Sagrada Familia Church would have to wait—for a while. Rajabi’s summer session is
booked, too. “Summer classes have become the norm for the majority of students seeking
to graduate in the traditional four years,” he says.

For many college students today, Rajabi’s predicament is commonplace. College is pretty
much sold as a four-year stint. But take a look at the statistics and you’ll find it’s far from
that simple. On average, both public and private schools are graduating just 37 percent of
their full-time students within four years, according to a 2008 analysis by the American
Enterprise Institute, a D.C.-based public-policy think tank. That’s about a 3 percent
slowdown from the 1990s, and a 10 percent drop from the 1960s, says the Higher
Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. But experts
expect these dismal numbers to sink even further. With the economy in the dumps, school
budgets being slashed, and more students than ever attending college, getting an
undergraduate degree in four fast years could one day become as unlikely as finishing in
three is now. “In the short run, the fiscal pressures on colleges and universities,
particularly in the public sector, are likely to lead to a decrease in four-year graduation
rates,” says Andrew Kelly, American Enterprise Institute research fellow in education

When colleges and universities report their graduation rates to the federal government,
they are more likely to use a six-year benchmark, not four, because it’s more realistic.
But students tend not to think about timing when they sign up for college orientation.

“Right now, most American students plan their futures and save money for college
assuming that a bachelor’s degree is a four-year commitment,” says José Cruz, vice
president of the Education Trust, a national student-advocacy group. “But that simply
isn’t the reality on most college campuses.” What’s more, that falling four-year grad rate
may eventually shift the overall timeline approach to college down the road. “As more
and more students fail to finish in four years, it is becoming acceptable to work ‘toward’
a degree,” says education consultant Donald Asher, “rather than to have a plan and follow
that plan to that finish line.”

For most students, extending college by an extra year or two is probably not a worthwhile
investment. “Students take on greater financial responsibilities the longer they stay in
school,” says James Boyle, president of College Parents of America, “because not only
do they end up paying more money to graduate, they also have a longer period of lost or
lesser income potential.”

Sure, some young people may unwillingly—or willingly—drag their feet. Common
issues that slow students down include changing majors, poor course planning,
transferring schools, and dropping courses. But others who have planned their course
load carefully still may not be able to avoid a growing number of factors getting in the
way of a four-year finish. For one, campus life is a lot more crowded these days. College
enrollment has risen 25 percent since 2000, according to the National Center for
Education Statistics. Add in growing university budget cuts, and for most students with
limited resources graduating in four years becomes a lot harder to achieve. “Schools are
changing their requirements and class offerings constantly, and these forces are all
working against the student who wants to get in and out in four years,” says Asher. Many
colleges have eliminated classes and instructors to save money, but graduation credit
requirements haven’t changed, leaving more students elbowing their way into fewer
classrooms—if they’re lucky enough to get in at all.

Many state schools, like those in the University of California system, have undergone
massive budget cuts. About $637 million from California’s total higher-education budget
was slashed, which is 20 percent of its 2009–10 fiscal-year financing. Moreover, state
funding to colleges and universities fell an average of 4 percent from 2008 to 2009,
leaving only $6,928 per student, according to a survey by the National Conference of
State Legislatures. “Applications are up. Enrollments are up. But universities have cut
instructors and classes,” says Asher. “There’s bound to be some impact on time to
graduate.” Since January 2009, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge has suffered a
$42 million cut in state funding, which led to a 10 percent reduction in its faculty. Private
schools hurt by losses in endowment funds are likewise cutting faculty and financial aid:
earlier this year, Dartmouth College announced it would lay off more than 70 employees
and eliminate full student grants for families earning more than $75,000 a year, mainly
due to a 20 percent drop in its endowment fund.

Also weighing on graduation rates is the sticker price of college, which has skyrocketed
over the decades. The high cost is forcing some students to take fewer classes per
semester to squeeze in a job, which further delays graduation. Inflation-adjusted tuition
and fees for four-year public colleges and universities are three and a half times higher
than they were in 1980, according to the College Board. And at private nonprofit four-
year schools, prices have nearly tripled over the same time frame. “College is markedly
more expensive … rising much more than any other sector of the economy, even health
care,” says Boyle.

On the surface, it may seem as though schools are purposely making it harder for students
to graduate. After all, each additional year gives universities additional tuition and fees.

But it’s not exactly a conspiracy, experts say. “I don’t think colleges explicitly aim to
keep students … longer than four years,” says the American Enterprise Institute’s Kelly.

At the same time, he notes, schools today have little motivation to ensure that their
students complete a bachelor’s degree in a reasonable amount of time. A school’s
reputation is only as good as its students—and their graduation rate. “Hopefully, with
[students and parents] increasingly focused on outcomes like degree completion and
degree production, institutions will have incentives to pay more attention to the time it
takes to earn a degree,” he says. Boyle, from College Parents of America, agrees:

“[Colleges] want to produce successful graduates, not lingering students who make more
payments and bring the school additional revenue on the margin.” Still, with the way
economic factors are unfolding, college students might have no choice but to hang

you might like....

$200,000 on a College Degree? You Crazy?

Let’s say you or your child gets accepted to Stanford or Harvard, an elite private college that consistently ranks in the tippity top of higher ed rankings and where graduates tend to get the best jobs with the best pay. But here’s the catch: It’ll cost close to $200,000 to attend. In the grand scheme of life, is it worth it?

Continue Reading
all articles