Slow Completion & Fast Spending: Taking 5-6 Years to Complete College Costs Billions

by Konrad Mugglestone & Michael Dannenberg



College doesn’t have to cost nearly as much as it does. Nationally, the average annual cost of tuition, fees, room, and board, has more than doubled since 1990 from $9,360 for a public four-year in-state college to $20,090 for the 2016-2017 school year. That means on average for a typical four-year bachelor’s degree, over $80,000 has to be found somewhere.

College carries a daunting price for those who complete on time, but imagine if a student takes an additional semester? Or an additional year? Or two additional years? Indeed, the most common metric used for completion rates is not four years for a bachelor’s degree, but six (known as 150% regular time). Why six years? Because when former Senator and basketball star Bill Bradley (D-NJ) helped put the metric into law, that was the amount of time the NCAA considered ‘normal.’

The factors causing a student to take longer than four years to complete a four-year degree, or longer than two years to complete a two-year degree are numerous. No single factor or actor is completely to blame for delayed time to degree.

Regardless, for students 150% regular time essentially means 150% regular price — potentially even more depending if grant aid or scholarships are front-loaded or only available for the first four years of a college education.

If we assume that graduating students are paying the average net price at their institution each year, then students who graduate from public universities with their bachelor’s degree in five or six years instead of four are paying an additional $3.6 billion dollars to complete their degrees. If those students are provided average state and institutional aid for those additional years, then in addition to the extra money students and their families pay out of pocket, states end up on the hook for another $775 million in budget outlays, and institutions end up spending an additional near $1.4 billion – all because of delayed time to degree.

In total, the data suggest that simply by helping students who typically complete in five to six years to finish their degree sooner, we could save over $5 billion in state, institution, and student money each and every year (and these estimates do not even include those who still haven’t completed after six years or who chose to drop out in the process).

That’s a staggering amount of money, and it doesn’t even account for the spaces in classes and facilities that would be freed up for more students to enroll in our nation’s institutions of higher education should a greater percentage graduate on time. Those freed up spaces could be used to reduce admission pressure at selective colleges (more acceptance letters, fewer rejections) not to mention boost our economy by creating more trained members of the workforce.

Most who are thinking about college affordability are focused on financial aid and college pricing.  But there’s another lane: time. Together, we should work on that.

It’ll make for some quick money.