Anyone involved with higher education branding and marketing has used such shorthand as “four-year liberal arts college” or “four-year degree.”
Likewise, most colleges and financial aid sources will talk about a bachelor’s degree as a four-year effort. But the best national data tells a different story. Reports from the American Council on Higher Education and the national Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study tell us that the average time to a bachelor’s degree is six years.
Time published a story earlier this year says that 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.
Judith Scott-Clayton, an assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, does a thorough job of explaining the mix of politics, economics, misinformation and parenting that collide in the simple question of “can I graduate in four years?”
As someone who meandered, often blindly, toward an undergraduate degree, I feel that graduation rate is one of the more under-acknowledged components of finding the right-fit college and making a smart investment.
First generation students often have the least amount of of knowledge and support, and frequently spend more of their scarce resources, trying to earn a coveted degree.
Our work with St. Norbert College in Wisconsin revealed the clear pros and cons of their four-year graduation guarantee. While there is no one-size-fits all solution, the incentives to graduate in four years are undeniable — even if it narrows options for electives, or makes something like study abroad a harder to achieve add-on.