The average length of time spent earning a bachelor’s degree has been steadily rising among American university students for the past 30 years, and the change is not entirely explained by a consideration of part-time and returning students, an economist says.

Extended graduation dates means higher costs to students, a fact that should provide most with an incentive to finish up early or on time. So what’s going on?

Among other reasons, Judith Scott-Clayton points to overcrowding brought on by circumstances in which university resources are not equal to student needs. Alongside nationwide budget cuts, a steady, predictable rise in enrollment has impaired colleges’ abilities to expand programs and make faculty hires when necessary. –ARK

The New York Times:

From an economic perspective, it’s not clear that there is an optimal time-to-degree, and for many students, it’s certainly better to complete college in five or six years than never complete at all. But stretching out a four-year degree means extra years of tuition costs, and additional years of labor market earnings and experience forgone. For students on financial aid, the five-year four-year degree also costs taxpayers.

… Overcrowding at public institutions, which may prevent students from taking the courses they need, is one explanation that has some support in the research. Unfortunately, having students hang around for five years ultimately does nothing to solve overcrowding; rather, it ensures that it will continue into the future. The freshmen who are shut out of a class in Year 1 come back to take the same class in Year 2, shutting out the next crop of freshmen.

… Similarly, it’s not clear that colleges have much incentive to get students out any faster. Although most institutional expenditures are related to providing instruction, many institutions charge a flat tuition rate for students taking 12 or more credits, and the revenues that these institutions receive from state and local governments are sometimes pegged to their number of “full-time” enrollees. A college that gets the same revenue, but incurs greater costs when a student takes 15 credits instead of 12, may not particularly mind if students want to follow a five-year plan.

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