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Millions of college freshmen are settling into college this fall, and 9 out of 10 of those pursuing bachelor’s degrees are confident they’ll finish in four years or less.

If history holds true, however, fewer than half of them actually will.

Colleges have gradually moved the finish line to give themselves credit for success if students graduate in six years — or even eight years, which is what consumers find reported on the government’s newest consumer website, College Scorecard.

That’s like judging the performance of an airline by the percentage of its flights that take up to twice as long as scheduled to reach their destinations.

college graduation rates
Researchers, policymakers and journalists have largely unquestioningly used six years as a measure of how long it takes students to earn four-year degrees. Now, as graduation rates stagnate and Covid-19 threatens to make them worse, it’s attracting scrutiny. Credit: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Image

Researchers, policymakers and journalists have largely unquestioningly used this measure. But now, as graduation rates stagnate, the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to make them even worse and the Biden administration proposes spending $62 billion to improve completion at higher education institutions with large proportions of low-income students, it’s attracting unaccustomed scrutiny.

“They’re pulling a bait and switch on students,” said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the advocacy group Complete College America.

While 90 percent of entering students in a nationwide UCLA survey say they’ll graduate within four years — the most basic promise made by a university or college to consumers — only 45 percent of them will.

They often won’t find out about these long odds from the colleges themselves, and they’d have to dig deep to learn them from the federal agency that regulates higher education.

That’s because both have for three decades measured completion as taking students six years, not four — “150 percent of ‘normal time’ for completing the program in which they are enrolled,” as the U.S. Department of Education puts it in the fine print.

“Universities actually work against a four-year completion. They’ve added credits to graduate, because why not, if they’ve got six years?”

Yolanda Watson Spiva, president, Complete College America

And fewer than two-thirds of students manage to finish even within six years, the Education Department reported.

“I daresay that if you ask any institution what their graduation goals are, they would say four years,” not six, Watson Spiva said. “Either they’re fooling themselves or they’re not being honest about how the systems they’ve set up work against that. What about turning out your product in the four years that you promised?”

Related: Racial gaps in college degrees are widening, just when states need them to narrow

A growing number of Americans are starting to ask the same question. More than 80 percent think federal funding for colleges and universities should be tied to such things as graduation rates, according to a survey by the left-leaning think tank New America.

Accepting that fewer than half of students at four-year colleges graduate within four years means many face significantly higher costs than they expected, while delaying the start of their careers. Some run out of money and give up.

“If a family has a plan, they end up financially unable to get to their goal,” said David Bergeron, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former acting assistant U.S. secretary of education for postsecondary education.

college graduation rates
Accepting that fewer than half of students at four-year colleges graduate within four years means many face higher costs than they expected, while delaying the start of their careers. Credit: Kate Flock for The Hechinger Report

It also creates little incentive for universities and colleges to improve these rates, which started to plateau even before the disruptions of Covid. The proportion of students who finished within six years grew by only three-tenths of a percentage point in 2020, the smallest increase in five years, and the proportion finishing in eight years declined, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“It leads to a malaise on the part of the institutions,” Watson Spiva said. “You can consider yourself a success,” even with low completion rates. By measuring those over six years, “we’re giving institutions an out, and an excuse for not meeting a four-year graduation goal.”

While the long-term impact of pandemic disruptions isn’t yet known, they’re widely expected to further drag down these numbers. Dropout rates rose in the fall of 2020 to their highest level since 2012, the Clearinghouse reports.

Related: Some colleges ease up on pushing undergrads into picking majors right away

Students can prolong their stays in college by arriving unprepared, taking too few credits per semester, working while in school, changing majors, running out of money or taking time off for family obligations and other reasons. Colleges and universities can slow them down by piling on additional requirements, failing to provide enough sections of required courses, offering inadequate advising and being stingy about accepting transfer credits.

“Universities actually work against a four-year completion,” said Watson Spiva. “They’ve added credits to graduate, because why not, if they’ve got six years? The profit motive has something to do with it, too. As long as students stay, they’re still paying.”

The result — that more than half of students take longer than four years to earn a bachelor’s degree — “is just appalling,” Watson Spiva said.

“Our expectation should be a four-year degree in four years,” Bergeron agreed.

“Why do we set this expectation of six years, which just causes people to think it’s OK to make excuses for not getting it done in four? If we think it should take six years, isn’t it going to take six years?”

Ninety percent of entering freshmen think they’ll graduate within four years, yet only 45 percent of them will.

In fact, he said, with more students earning college credit while in high school through Advanced Placement, dual enrollment and other programs, “the question we should be asking is why does it even take four years? Why doesn’t it just take three?”

The story of how America came to measure graduation from four-year colleges over six years opens in 1989, when then-Sen. Bill Bradley, who played college and professional basketball, began, along with fellow senators, to scrutinize the academic performance of student athletes — none of whom, at some schools, ever graduated.

Until then, colleges, universities and the NCAA didn’t disclose their graduation rates at all, and bristled at the prospect that they’d have to. They complained that such a requirement amounted to government interference in their affairs.

Related: Colleges fight attempts to stop them from withholding transcripts over unpaid bills

Since athletic eligibility covers five years, the senators proposed making colleges report athletes’ five-year graduation rates. Then they expanded the requirements to all students, not just athletes. After lobbying by universities and colleges, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose state was rife with higher education institutions, added a last-minute amendment defining completion as earning a degree within “150 percent of the standard time for completion of the program.”

The law was passed in 1990, though the colleges managed to put off publicly reporting graduation rates until 1997; Bradley said at the time that he thought they were stalling because they were embarrassed by their graduation rates.

“Institutions never wanted people to know,” said Bergeron. “It’s not to protect the Harvards of the world. It’s not to protect the most productive of our institutions — the University of Michigans, the University of Virginias, that have really good graduation rates. It’s to protect the least well-performing of the institutions, with the really dismal graduation rates.”

about college graduation rates
Ninety percent of entering college students think they’ll graduate within four years, but only 45 percent of them will. More than a third still won’t have finished after even six years. Credit: Harrison Jones for the Hechinger Report

Universities and colleges also successfully pushed for a formula that counted only full-time students entering higher education for the first time, which an analysis by the think tank Third Way calculates made overall average graduation rates look 6 percentage points higher.

When all students were eventually added to the formula in 2017, it showed that more than half of colleges and universities were graduating fewer than half of their students even after eight years. At more than 500 schools, only a quarter of students finished within eight years, and at 32 colleges and universities, 10 percent or fewer did.

When speaking with policymakers and elected officials, “I always ask, ‘Would you send your kids to these schools?’ ” said Michael Itzkowitz, Third Way’s senior fellow for higher education and another former Department of Education official. “They’re probably only good enough for other people’s kids. Yet we’re readily accrediting them, we’re giving them tons of money through financial aid, and the students have only a 25 percent chance of graduating, and at some as low as 10 percent.”

Asked repeatedly why graduation rates are still measured in increments of six years, whether this causes confusion among students and families, and what impact it has on pushing colleges to improve completion, the Department of Education responded by cutting, pasting and sending the text of the 1990 law with no further comment or elaboration.

Related: ‘Right now is not my time’: How Covid dimmed college prospects for students who need help most

Gaps in graduation rates between Black or Latino students and whites are particularly acute in some states. 

It is possible for consumers to see four-year graduation rates on another Education Department website, College Navigator, but they’re first shown six-year rates. Graduation rates by race, ethnicity and gender are all reported over six and not four years.

Completion rates are even worse for particular groups of students. Only about a quarter of Black and a third of Hispanic students graduate within four years, for instance, government figures show.

Some student advocates have a different problem with the way that graduation rates are tabulated: that growing numbers of students are pursuing higher education in dramatically new ways that don’t follow a traditional timetable.

“Who are we measuring this for, and to what end?” asked Peter Smith, a former congressman, the author of “Stories from the Educational Underground: The New Frontier for Learning and Work” and a professor of innovative practices in higher education at the University of Maryland Global Campus.

“What we should admit is that a four-year completion rate, where it works, is working for a limited number of students,” Smith said. “The mainstream model is shifting to truly lifelong in-and-out, come-and-go education. And for some people that is four years or two years.”

But for most people, he said, it’s not. And that means it’s time to find new ways of measuring success.

“The counting system we have — six years, eight years — is really telling us about how the traditional system is unable to meet these changing aspirations.”

This story about college graduation rates was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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  1. This may very well be just another example of how the more things change, the more they remain the same. Forty years ago I graduated from college as the first woman in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. It took me 6 years, as I decided to take a leave of absence and finish up my senior year later. At the time that this happened, I felt like a total failure. Icing on the cake: nobody in my family was even slightly interested in attending my commencement, since I had spent the last 4 to 6 years trashing my college experience. One idea I had a long time ago was to enable college-bound students to take numerous college-level courses while still in high school, for credit. Then, after starting actual college and finishing up the required work in their major (no electives or liberal arts courses, as they would have taken those in high school), tack on a credential or licensing exam to the end of the undergraduate program in order to make a bachelor’s degree worth something in the job market. That would take less than 4 years, and send more professionals into the job market earlier–a boost to the economy.

  2. A very major factor is the fact that over 60 percent of college students in public universities change their major at least once. Unlike in former and simpler times, students have considerably less exposure to real experiences with potential jobs and their preference of a major is superficial or abstract. They often encounter a general ed course teacher who reveals a different career path that they had never considered. This is dismissed in this essay as an extraneous factor along with family and working obligations, but it is a major factor. Legislators’ pressure to achieve a four-year graduation goal ignores this massive number of students switching fields of study. I am very familiar with the Chinese university system where no undergraduate student can change major after the first semester and all must graduate in four years (to stay an extra year would deny university capacity for a new freshman). Many Chinese students have discovered that they now prefer another major but cannot change. U.S. students have that ability to change majors and graduate into a field they have discovered they love. U.S. legislators who desire a 4-year-only goal apparently are willing to have up to 60 percent of our students graduating in a field they no longer prefer.

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