Why Does College Take so Long These Days?

American college students, particularly male students, have been slower and slower to finish college over the past 30 years. A new working paper by John Bound, Michael F. Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner suggests the trend is due to rising costs of education. Demographics and academic preparedness don’t explain the trend, but the authors found?evidence in support of the increasing cost hypothesis: both increasing student-faculty ratios and cohort size are linked to increasing time-to-degree, particularly in “non-top 50 public sector” schools. The authors also found that students are working more hours in response to rising costs. Low-income students and students at less-selective institutions are particularly vulnerable to the trend. (HT: Chris Blattman)[%comments]


It took me 5 years instead of four becuase I changed majors... at least that's how I rationalize it while ignoring the frat life I was part of in mid 80's.

but that's not really what you're talking about.

Melissa Danielle

I returned to college after about 8 years, and I have to say that much of my experience there - taking "core" classes to fulfill degree requirements art school missed - felt extremely irrelevant to someone, like me, who has worked in diverse office settings since graduating high school.

Being in class with 18-20 year olds who were NOT ready to assume positions with responsibility (I wouldn't trust them to answer the phone let alone send a professional letter or manage a client, with regard to the way they spoke, wrote essays, and their lack of participation and inability to work in groups), it became clear that colleges and universities need to rethink their role in preparing students for the workfplace.

I would love to see how the vocational model - training/education in 16-24 months with paid internship/job placement - can be applied to certain degree programs.

Outside of science, medicine, and law - do students really need 4+ years to be qualified to answer phones, draft business letters, meet deadlines, etc? Because it's obvious that the current model is not helping them to address this.

Or maybe we need to advocate for high school reform so that all students entering college were prepared?


Mario Bros.

I see no reason as to why public colleges and universities should still charge students. Students should be able to attend public post-secondary education without costs. The increase in government spending will be repaid by the increase in productivity and innovation produced by the graduates who graduate in four years without debt. If nothing else community colleges nationwide should be free of costs.

Thomas Myers

Although the costs of contemporary education certain contributes to the time it takes students to complete degrees, I would argue as society stresses the importance a college education, more and more youth attend universities. Universities are more than willing to participate in net widening tactics to collect on social influences which may possibly reduce the quality of the student. As a university accepts more students, requirements and standards for student intelligence and education decrease. Less intelligence less educated students may increase the amount the time necessary to finish school.

I would argue society stresses and influences university to widen their acceptance net; therefore, reducing the number of students capable of finishing school quickly, or at least in the suggest four year time frame.

Jacob H

Young men are playing video games instead of doing their college work. That's why it's taking so long.


Vastly expanding the number of students we send to colleges requires digging into the meatier parts of the bell curve. Why would you expect someone of average intelligence and conscientiousness to be able to complete a degree in four years, even if it's in a watered-down mickey mouse college?


"The increase in government spending will be" paid by Mario Bros.


The incentive for the college is to add as many prerequisites as possible to degree programs. More pre-requisites is equal to more revenue for the college.

This is in particular true for an science or math based degrees. It is easier for them to add additional classes to those programs.

This would easily explain the longer time to graduate for male students.

I remember faculty telling me that it would take 5 years to graduate for an engineering based degree. It hasn't been possible to graduate in 4 years (without a great deal of extra effort) in those science programs in years.


Makes sense. If these students, who have less financial support at home, are working to pay their way through school, and no one in the school is particularly connected to them, then the loss of a job or an unexpected expense (such as a car repair on the vehicle that gets the student to work or school) may mean the choice between paying rent or continuing one's education. It may or may not be a reflection on the quality of the individual student, aside from the fact that wealthier kids tend to do better in school.

I think one of the key factors is the size of the institution--where you might be a serial number and a tuition check at a large school, my professors knew not only my name, but my career ambitions, my internship responsibilities, my on-campus job--it would be beneficial if larger institutions could replicate some part of this, where at least someone would email you and ask why you hadn't been attending class.

At the college I attended (Mount Holyoke) there is a class of students called Frances Perkins Scholars, who are students age 24 and older, and in getting to know them, it became clear that there are many, many reasons that intelligent and motivated young people may be forced to leave school or interrupt their education.


Michael B.

From the student side I noticed that working several part-time jobs every semester to pay off out-of-state tuition tended to significantly slow down my academic progress. From the teaching side I noticed that there are a significant number of people who are just slow (party to much, don't know what they are really doing in college, etc.) to getting around to graduating. However, when I take the time to get to know my students I find out that many of them are struggling to work crappy hours to pay off student tuition and expenses. Those with spouse or kids are also SOL when it comes to graduating anytime soon. Academia is very slow in realizing the growing demands of an increasing population of "non-traditional" students.


There are several reasons I can think of, but hard perhaps to measure with econometric means. For one thing, the publics out of the top 50 attract what are, in many cases, lesser students. I know you're not supposed to say that... Couple that with the fact that until the 1960's there were more jobs for college grads than there were college graduates, which is no longer true (not by a longshot!) That means that kids that 40+ years ago could expect to walk into some white-collar job just by virtue of having a piece of paper now face increasing competition for that job. So students drift for a few years in college, especially at the large publics where you get no attention from faculty, no guidance, and you're surrounded by peers that are not the cream of the crop. Without any direction or guidance it probably takes a few years to figure out that you need to have some marketable skills; a History major from Harvard will get interviews, a History major from Long Beach State will flip fries.

As for rising costs and students working more, this tells nothing about causality. When expenses go up it is obvious to most outside the ivory tower that people will work longer in response to pay the bills. But this association can happen even if other factors (not measured) are causing the time to degree to increase.



@Jacob H

What if video games are conducive to learning? Perhaps more time spent solving physics puzzles in Half Life 2 and less time doing the sort of maths mathematician Paul Lockhart laments would improve students' academic standards?


-- why mathematics is the purest form of art.


Given that it takes longer for a student to become a full-fledged working member of society, don't we lose out on some valuable productivity while said student is flipping burgers to pay for his next semester? Wouldn't that be a good reason for the government to step in and subsidize some more of our education?


It's probably a combination of factors. When I went to college in the 80s, I noticed that kids (like me) who had to pay their own tuition and expenses tended to graduate as soon as possible. Kids who had their parents footing the bill were more likely to take their time to graduate.

With the (ridiculous!) rise in college expenses, there are probably two trends. One: more parents realize there's no way their kid can pay for college, and are footing the bill. Therefore, there are more kids farting around instead of putting their nose to the grindstone. Two: kids who have to pay their own way have to work longer hours to defray the costs. These kids, no matter how motivated, will take longer to graduate than they would have if costs were reasonable.

Are there any studies about who pays for college, parents, scholarships, loans, working students? They would be interesting to see.


Thanks to the credentialism treadmill, more people who shouldn't really be in college "have" to go through to get the jobs they want. That means the average cognitive level of the college-goer must have fallen.


Friends report to me that they are unable to complete their degree in four years because of the inavailability of classes they are required to take. When all the sections of a class that is a graduation prerequisite for you are full when you are admitted to class registration for the following semester, what can you do? One friend even suggested that this was an intnetional revenue-generator for some colleges; you just need to pay tuition for an extra semester or two before they bless your diploma.


As a university student in the early to mid 1990s, I was constantly scrambling to get my tuition paid in time to register for each semester. By the time I was actually permitted to register, nearly every entry-level course that was a prerequisite in any significant field was full, and I was unable to take the course. Once I started working at higher-paying jobs and was eligible for financial aid, I was able to register on time, but the number of available seats in popular or required courses was still unreasonably low, and getting properly registered in any semester was a crapshoot.

Of course, by ensuring that not every student who wants or needs to take a course can actually do so, universities likewise ensure that they can extract 5 or 6 years of tuition dollars from students that would likely graduate in 4 if they were given access to necessary or required courses. As a result, I saw little effort on the university's part to address this problem.


Casey Roberson

The rising cost of education is a result of working more hours. The extra hours cut into study time for students resulting in lower grades and repeating of classes. -or- The reason could be due to the generation enrolling in college currently. This generation is a "spoiled" generation and might not be taking class as serious as previous generations.


Two habits of students are switching majors and transferring to another institution. Both impose a penalty of credits not being applicable in the new situation. At my institution 60 percent of students who graduate start in a major other than their degree major. Nationally only 55 percent of students graduate within 6 years from the college at which they begin. Even with articulation agreements between schools, credits often end up overflowing the "elective" list. Double majors, common in education programs and international programs (in engineering and business, for example), add extra credits and time to completion. In programs with complex requirements for graduation, it's very easy to get out of sync and need an extra semester to finish. Cost certainly add to the problem, but are not the only factor. Where cost is critical for students they react in two ways: 1) going part-time and 2) "stopping out" for a semester or two. Those of us in Institutional Research are well aware of the situation and spend much time working on it.


Eric M. Jones

It took me six years because it was the late 1960's.
Pot, free love, hippies, the Beatles, Rock and Roll, man on the moon, Vietnam, Race riots, Elvis, Star Trek, Hendrix, psychedelic music, assassinations, folk music, The March on Washington, Feminism, The British invasion, LSD. Kent State, Hey, ya' should'a been there!

How it ONLY took me six years is amazing.