Encourage Timely Degree Completion

A major problem facing today’s higher education institutions is that many students are not graduating on time. This problem is not only prevalent in undergraduate programs, but has a large effect on graduate programs as well. While recent trends give us some reason to be optimistic, the average time to complete a four-year degree is still 55 months, a full seven months longer than the name would imply. With a college school year lasting approximately nine months, in reality, students are taking nearly a full fifth year of classes to achieve their four year degree. With only 39 percent of students graduating on time, a serious effort should be made to provide incentives to students and institutions to increase on time rates while maintaining a high quality of education. Figure 15.1 shows the distribution of four-year degree recipients by time-to-degree.

Figure 15.1: Time Between Post-Secondary Entry and Degree Completion
Figure 15.1: Time Between Post-Secondary Entry and Degree Completion


What We Have to Gain

A recent book, Crossing the Finish Line, observes that “students who take longer to graduate use more of their own time and resources (including family resources)” and notes that “society at large is absorbing much of the cost of increased time-to-degree through the tax dollars that fund these public institutions.” Thus, the goal of a higher rate of on-time completion of higher education degrees will benefit the student, the institution, as well as the government, and depend on a joint effort from all three parties. The student’s gain is primarily financial. With tuition costing an average of $6,585 per extra year, students often take on additional debt to pay for this extra time. Not to mention foregoing a year’s worth of wages, a huge opportunity cost for students. Moreover, delayed graduation can have undesirable career consequences, especially at the graduate level. A Washington University study has shown that when employers, especially in academia, look into hiring new staff, an extended time to graduation is viewed negatively. By prolonging the process of earning a degree, a student may forfeit better job opportunities, which could lead to lower financial compensation and benefits.

The taxpayer and society as a whole also benefit from on-time graduation. Taxpayers currently pay approximately $5,409 per student per academic year. With 9.1 million students currently enrolled in undergraduate programs and 61 percent of them likely not to graduate on time, a huge economic burden is being placed on the shoulders of the taxpayers. At current costs, over $7.5 billion could be saved if all students graduated on time each year. There is also a “crowding out” effect that is more difficult to quantify. Since there are only so many students that a school can handle at once, students who stay in school beyond four years are preventing other students who might have taken their place from enrolling.

The continued presence of students beyond the expected date creates problems for the institutions. Inaccurate predictions of student turnover will make forecasting and budgeting for the future difficult. Delayed graduation also swells the size of base-level classes because many late graduates change degree programs mid-stream or take lower level classes to fill the fulltime requirements. By adopting a system that encourages and supports on-time graduation, the administration at universities will be able to more accurately gauge future monetary, faculty and infrastructural needs, which will help to prevent misallocation of funds and may reduce unnecessary costs, allowing for a more efficient system.

How to Encourage On Time Completion

There are certain steps the institution and the government can take to encourage students to make efficient use of their college time. However, there are also steps students can take to move the process of graduation forward. It is, after all, largely up to the students whether they graduate on time or not.


The educational and political institutions can set up the incentives to promote on-time graduation, but ultimately the decisions made by individual students are the most important factor in determining on-time completion rates. A change in mindset and forward planning can make the difference between graduating in four years and graduating in five or six years. With two separate but intertwined alterations, the potential positive effect on the time it takes to graduate can be substantial.

Changing Majors – A major hurdle to graduating on time is the habit of many students of changing majors. Approximately 60 percent of undergraduate students change majors at least once, with many students changing majors multiple times. There are circumstances where changing one’s major is necessary and a bit of indecision is to be expected for young people. In fact, with the exception of some technically specific careers such as nursing, engineering and accounting, it is often more important to just get a degree, as opposed to having a specific major. Policies that reduce the prevalence of switching majors could shorten the time required for a degree.

Changing Attitudes – There is a growing attitude among students that graduating in five or more years is the norm and not a big deal. This mindset fosters an attitude of postponement and mediocrity. This additional year may provide ample opportunity to enjoy the non-academic pursuits of college, but the increased debt can have long-term consequences. The “real world” can often be intimidating for outgoing students, but facing it cannot be delayed forever. Students’ attitudes towards college needs to change to see a formal education as a means to an end, not an end itself.

Institutional Level

Universities can provide incentives to assist students in graduating on time in several ways.

Changes to Courses – When courses are required, they should be readily available. It is a deterrent to on-time completion if core courses are offered in limited quantities and at inconvenient times. Universities should consider revising courses to align them with the vision of giving a quality education to students in a reasonable time. When two years are set aside for a rigid set of general education classes, they can become a stumbling block for students, especially if a significant amount of time is used on courses that will be of no benefit to the student in choosing a major or helping in future courses. This is especially true for transfer students, who may have come from a college that had different requirements.

Cap Enrollment to Encourage Timely Completion – Institutions could alter their enrollment policies to encourage departments to graduate their students on time. It is also possible to formulate policies that will encourage on time completion support from the faculty level. An example of this policy was introduced by Harvard at the PhD level. To combat the problem of PhD candidates taking more than 10 years to complete their program, Harvard would not allow programs to have new students until older students completed their program. The results were nearly instant. By the time the policy took effect, degree completion rates had increased approximately 25 percent in the humanities department. Professors began encouraging and working more directly with students to assist in on time completion. A similar program should be instituted to hold departments and individual professors responsible for the timely success of their students.

Remove Credit Cap After Freshmen Year – The current practice of limiting the amount of hours that can be taken by students unless they gain administrative permission is well-intentioned but can often lead to a delay in graduation. This is especially true for students who double-major or take Honors courses, but wish to graduate on time. Most colleges have the limit set at 18 or 21 credit hours to prevent students from burning themselves out or over-committing themselves. This may be necessary for first year students, but, after a year, students should be informed enough to make that decision on their own. Increased red tape and bureaucracy for class registration of this kind discourages hard-working students and prolongs the process of meeting graduation requirements. At the very least, students should be able to consult with a trusted professor in their field and be allowed to enroll in more classes under the professor’s guidance. This would free the students to proceed at their own pace while reducing administrative hassle.

“Full time” does not equal on-time graduation – The concept of full-time status at a university is often viewed as a minimum requirement for graduation, but in reality it does no guarantee on time graduation. Universities should help students focus on ensuring that their schedule of courses will help them fulfill the requirements for graduation.

Establish and Encourage Use of Exploratory and Guidance Programs – Programs should be established and maintained that help guide students into their areas of relative strength. Guidance counselors, information sessions, and even general education and survey classes are not as effective as they could be when they are not properly utilized by the students.

Increase Use of Facilities – Many universities have classrooms that are dormant throughout most of the week, increasing the costs of maintenance and overfilling classes during peak hours. This topic is discussed in more detail in the facility use chapter, but better facility usage is important in encouraging on time graduation. Through the implementation of discounts for summer or evening courses, the classrooms can be utilized and students will be more inclined to fill gaps in their requirements outside of the normal semester. Currently students are usually forced to compete with each other for required courses at traditional times of the day, such as Monday – Thursday, 10am – 2pm. If universities encouraged class use at less popular times, then students who are able to would take advantage of this opportunity to reduce scheduling conflicts. This would free up class space and reduce the number of students who stay enrolled for an extra year or more due to missing core course requirements. A similar response could be expected if more classes are offered (perhaps at discounted rates) on Fridays. Although Friday classes are often unpopular, with the proper incentives students could take Friday courses that will benefit both the school, by putting the classrooms to use, and the student, through greater opportunities for on time completion.

Government Level

In cooperation with institutional changes, governmental policies and priorities should also change. By providing the right incentives to students and institutions, the public sector can help encourage on-time graduation.

Tie Institutional Aid to On Time Graduation Rates – Government agencies should place restrictions on aid given to institutions who fail to graduate their students on time. Currently, colleges can receive state funding for the same student for as long as they are enrolled. If a cap of four or five years of full time attendance was put in place, the colleges would have an incentive to ensure that students are progressing towards their degree.

Incentivize Students – The government could also provide incentives to encourage students to graduate on time. For instance, it could limit aid to a specific length of time or number of credits, which would discourage protracted college attendance. Another option would be to restrict in-state tuition to students who exceed the required number of credit hours for a degree by a significant amount. Legislation with this goal in mind has been introduced in Virginia by Delegate David Albo. State and federal governments can also provide other financial incentives to students who graduate on time or early. Chris Saxman, a delegate in the Virginia state legislature, attempted to pass a bill that would provide a grant to students who graduate from college early, enroll in a graduate program and agree to work in Virginia. While this may have been too restrictive, the idea is intriguing. The financial support structure of government funding for students must be changed. Government funding must be limited to the number of credits needed for completion of a program. Government funding should be structured to provide an incentive to graduate on time, rather than to stay in college for as long as possible. It is often the case that life outside of college seems too hard and the ability to postpone “the real world” appeals to many students, especially during a difficult economic time. Government policies should not be subsidizing such decisions.


Rising per-semester costs continue to drain individuals, institutions, and governments of scarce funds. In order to help rein in these costs, students need to be encouraged to graduate on time, instead of postponing life after college. Huge improvements could be made by following the three pronged approach of student, institutional, and government changes. It is going to take cooperation on all levels to reach the goal of reining in enrollment time and graduating students on time. All parties must work to achieve this goal, but all parties stand to gain.