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When Alex Nichols started as a freshman at the University of Mississippi, he felt sure he’d earn his bachelor’s degree in four years.

Nichols is about to return to the campus for his fifth successive fall.

“There are a lot more students staying another semester or another year than I thought there would be when I got here,” he said. “I meet people once a week who say, ‘Yes, I’m a second-year senior,’ or, ‘I’ve been here for five years.’”

They’re likely as surprised as Nichols still to be toiling away in school.

A student cheers during the University of Mississippi commencement ceremony in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, May 10, 2014. (AP Photo/The Daily Mississippian, Thomas Graning) Credit: AP Photo/The Daily Mississippian, Thomas Graning

Nearly nine out of 10 freshmen think they’ll earn their bachelor’s degrees within the traditional four years, according to a nationwide survey conducted by an institute at UCLA. But the U.S. Department of Education reports that fewer than half that many actually will. And about 45 percent won’t have finished even after six years.

That means the anxiety of families and students over the annual cost of college overlooks the enormous additional expense of the extra time it will actually take.

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“It’s a huge inconvenience,” said Nichols, of Mobile, Alabama, whose college career has been prolonged for the common reason that he changed majors and took courses he ended up not needing, but whose athletics scholarship — he was a middle-distance runner on the cross-country team — ran out after four years. “I had to get some financial help from my parents.”

Nine out of 10 freshmen think they’ll earn their bachelor’s degrees in four years. But fewer than half that many will. And 45 percent won’t have finished even after six years.

The added cost of just one extra year at a four-year public university is $63,718 in tuition, fees, books, and living expenses, plus lost wages each of those many students could have been earning had they finished on time, according to the advocacy group Complete College America.

A separate report by the Los Angeles-based Campaign for College Opportunity finds that the average student at a California State University campus who takes six years instead of four to earn a bachelor’s degree will spend an additional $58,000 and earn $52,900 less, over their lifetimes, than a student who graduates on time, for a total loss of $110,900.

“The cost of college isn’t just what students and their families pay in tuition or fees,” said Michele Siqueiros, the organization’s executive director. “It’s also about time. That’s the hidden cost of a college education.”

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So hidden that most families still unknowingly plan on four years for a bachelor’s degree, said Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, which conducts that annual survey of freshmen.

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Although the institute does not poll parents, “that high percentage of freshmen [who are confident they’ll finish in four years] is probably reflecting their parents’ expectation — ‘This is costing me a lot, so you’re going to be out in four years.’ So the students think, ‘Sure, why not?’ I don’t think the parents even initially entertain or plan for six years or some possible outcome like that.”

Yet many students almost immediately doom themselves to taking longer, since they register for fewer courses than they need to stay on track. Surveys of incoming freshmen in California and Indiana who said they expected to graduate in four years found that half signed up for fewer courses than they’d needed to meet that goal, according to a new report by the higher-education consulting firm HCM Strategists.

It’s not entirely the students’ fault.

More than half of community-college students are slowed down by having to retake subjects such as math and reading that they should have learned in high school, says Complete College America. On average, the group says, students graduate with an average of 134 credits when they typically could have finished with 120 — a situation aggravated by the fact that higher-education institutions have only one academic advisor for every 400 students.

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Meanwhile, those courses students are required to take are often not available because of budget cuts. Two-thirds of students at one California State University campus weren’t able to get into their required courses, according to a 2010 study by the University of California’s Civil Rights Project.

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“A lot of students don’t get the proper advising,” said Daniel Clark, president of the California State Student Association and a student at California State University Fresno. “They realize sophomore year or junior year that they’re not going to be able to finish in four years, and there is a little bit of frustration because of how much more that costs.”

Most state financial-aid programs, meanwhile, cover only four years. “They do not fund a fifth or sixth year,” said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America and former Indiana commissioner of higher education. “And by that time the parents’ resources and the students’ resources have run out. So that fifth year is where you borrow.”

Policymakers urge speeding students through remedial classes more quickly, adding more sections of required courses so students can get in when they need them, and encouraging students to take 15 credits per semester instead of the typical 12.

Until these kinds of things occur, the idea that students will finish in four years remains “the great myth,” Jones said.

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One irony: The most elite colleges and universities may charge some of the highest annual tuitions, but almost all of their students graduate on time, making them a relative bargain in this respect.

Those schools “would have a revolt if their students had to go a fifth year,” Jones said. “But that recognition has really not hit the public sector yet, about the hidden cost of that extra year.”

As for Nichols, he’ll be back on campus this fall finishing his degree in integrated marketing communications. He’s determined that it will take no more than one additional semester.

“That’s time you’re wasting,” he said, “that you could be out making money.”

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Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education correspondent for...

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  1. Good stuff. Delayed completion is absolutely an under-appreciated issue in the affordability discussion.

    We also appreciate your highlighting the issue of required course access at registration. This is also a huge problem that students continually highlight but few institutions currently prioritize.
    Our experience, though, is that budget is not the only reason that seats aren’t available to get seats in required courses. This frequently stems from a lack of decision-support data to support the decentralized scheduling process at the academic unit level. For that reason, our research shows that fewer than a third (32%) of the courses offered on a typical campus are “aligned” with student need. The remainder are under-filled or overloaded. The opportunity is that we have MORE under-filled courses than overloaded ones. The trick is to use the data to get existing faculty resources to meet more of the students’ required course needs.

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