Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It is madness to borrow money for six years to get a four-year college degree

Complete College America, a nonprofit public advocacy group located in Indianapolis, issued a report recently entitled Four-Year Myth. The report starkly documents what everyone in higher education already knows: The vast majority of college students do not complete their four-year degrees in four years.

Here are some of the report's key findings:
  • Only 5 percent of students in two-year associate degree programs graduate on time.
  • Only 19 percent of students in four-year programs at non-flagship universities obtain their degrees within four years.
  • At flagship institutions, where the nation's top students attend college, only 36 percent of the students complete their four-year degrees on time.
Moreover, the report points out, a lot of students accumulated significantly more credit hours than they need to graduate.  On average, students at non-flagship institutions have 133 credits on their transcripts although most need only about 120 credit hours to graduate.

The report acknowledges that there are many good reasons why many students cannot graduate on time.  Nevertheless, as the report succinctly stated, "[S]omething is clearly wrong when the overwhelming majority of public colleges graduate less than 50 percent of their full-time students in four years."

The report lists several reasons for the low on-time graduation rates at most public colleges and universities:
  • Lighter course loads.  Many students don't take enough credits while in school to graduate on time.  A full course load at most colleges is 15 credit hours per semester, but only 50 percent of the students at four-year institutions take a full course load.  Only 29 percent of students in two-year programs take full course loads.
  • Remediation courses.  According to the report, 1.7 million students take remediation courses each year but only 1 out of 10 remedial students graduate.
  • Uninformed choices.  Too many students make poor choices when enrolling for classes, which causes them to take courses that won't move them toward on-time graduation.  Part of this problem can be attributed to an inadequate number of counselors at many universities.
/As Four-Year Myth points out, students who take six years to obtain a four-year degree often have significantly more student-loan debt than students who graduate on time.  At the University of Texas, for example, students who graduate on time accumulate on average about $19,000 in debt. Students who take six years to graduate are burdened (on average) with $32,000 in student loans.

Four-Year Myth is a very useful report, but in my mind, it did not place enough emphasis on the role that student loans play in the downward slide of on-time graduation rates.  I believe a lot of unmotivated students are taking just enough credit hours to qualify for student loans without realizing that they are accumulating a lot of unnecessary debt by taking a more leisurely path toward graduation. When a mandatory course is unavailable to them in a given semester, some of them will enroll in an unnecessary course solely to meet the minimum number of hours they need to qualify for student loans.

The report makes several good suggestions for improving on-time graduation rates, which I will not repeat here. But I would like to add an additional suggestion: The federal student loan program should only be available to a student for a maximum of four years of full time study.  Thus, students in four-year programs who take six years to graduate or students who take longer than four years to graduate because they changed colleges or changed majors should be required to pay the cost for delayed graduation out of their own pockets if those costs exceed the cost of being enrolled full time for four years.

Call it tough love if you like. But the federal government is doing America's young people no favor by allowing them to borrow money semester after semester while they wander around colleges and universities for five, six, or seven years when they are enrolled in four-year degree programs.

And we should pay special attention to one of the report's most shocking findings: Only 5 percent of students enrolled in two-year associate degree programs graduate on time.  Our community colleges, which purport to serve disadvantaged students, have fallen down on the job if they cant' get their on-time graduation rates above five percent.

References

Four-Year Myth. Complete College America, 2014. Accessible at: file:///C:/Users/wrf7707/AppData/Local/Microsoft/Windows/Temporary%20Internet%20Files/Content.IE5/9UM6POWU/4-Year-Myth.pdf

Tamar Lewin. Most Don't Earn Degree in Four Years, Study Finds.New York Times, December 2, 2014, p. A14. 










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