Study: Majority of Ala. College Students Take 6 Years to Graduate

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It's called a four-year degree, but for a majority of Alabama's college students, obtaining one takes more than six years.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, fewer than half of Alabama's first-time, degree-seeking college students at four-year public universities were graduating within six years. That finding was as of 2010, the latest year available in public data.

And fewer than a quarter were making it out in four years, the once-traditional target duration for students seeking a baccalaureate degree.

Nationally, college students aren't fairing much better. Just 54 percent make it out in six years, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Alabama ranked 36th in the nation for timely graduations with 47.5 percent graduating in six years and just 22.9 graduating in four, according to The Chronicle.

Experts say they aren't sure why students are taking longer to graduate, but the extra years in school is costing them, their families and taxpayers.

"There's a big subsidy by taxpayers and you're taking away a spot that someone else could be enjoying, so it's a big policy problem," said Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy.

"Students may not see it as a very expensive decision, but in fact it is an expensive decision because there's the living cost of those years, and those are fewer years that students spend in the job market as college graduates."

With the average net price of a year at a four-year, degree granting institution hitting $20,374 nationally during the 2010-11 school year, an additional year of enrollment translated to an extra $234 per month in student loan payments if the student financed his or her education, according to one Brookings study.

Extending enrollment to six years translated to an extra $469 per month.

While few in-depth studies have investigated the cause of the slowdown, Chingos says experts have put forth a number of speculative causes that probably have some degree of truth.

That starts with student behavior, he says, since students are more likely to switch majors, which can set them back in achieving graduation requirements.

"They're failing courses, they're switching majors," he said. "Let's say you do a bunch of requirements for one major and then you decide to major in something else, and then you have whole new set of requirements."

Other possible explanations include a cultural shift that has students simply planning to take longer to graduate. That usually depends on how long their peers are taking to graduate.

Particularly at public universities where tuition is lower, Chingos said graduates have equated graduating in four years to "leaving the party at 10:30."

"I think the expectations of graduation in four years is more a mindset of earlier generations than it is the current student population," said Gordon Stone, executive director of the Higher Education Partnership in Montgomery.

Experts are also investigating whether access to required classes plays a role in the slowdown. As public dollars going to universities dwindle -- Alabama ranks fourth in the nation for cuts to higher education funding -- universities are forced to streamline their course catalogs, Stone says.

"We do have a more streamlined program simply because of the realization that operations and maintenance dollars that have been cut back by the state mean you have to be as efficient as possible," Stone said.

Chingos says there is anecdotal evidence that course availability is a problem at some schools nationally, but it is not yet clear whether it's become a systemic issue.

Colleges offering fewer courses to keep students enrolled longer and increase their revenue is probably not a systemic problem, he said.

"It's hard to imagine how they would do much better," he said. "If the student were to finish on time, they would probably just admit another student because there's more demand for spots, especially at lead public universities."

Meanwhile, colleges are taking steps to push students toward a more timely graduation.

At Auburn University, spokesman Mike Clardy said students are encouraged to finish in four years during freshmen orientation.

Also, the university launched last year a new software program that allows students to check their progress toward graduation at any point during their enrollment.

"The idea is to keep them on track for completing their degrees in four years," Clardy says. "In recent years, we've also pushed the idea through our marketing efforts of 'Summers at Auburn' to encourage student to either get ahead or take the opportunity to catch up."

It's too soon to tell whether the new programs will be effective. Unless colleges can find ways to push students through the system faster, the slowdown will continue driving up the cost of college.

While Alabama ranks 36th nationally for timely graduation, it ranks ninth nationally for spending per completion at $84,304, according to The Chronicle.

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