Why Do Low-Income Students Take Longer to Graduate?

Financial-aid restrictions are woefully out of keeping with the way most students attend school today.

The golden image of college students walking brick-paved paths to attend small classes in ivy-covered buildings hasn't matched the reality of higher education for a while now. Nearly half of U.S. college students commute to classes at open-enrollment community colleges and have never lived or studied in a dorm. Many of those students juggle family and other responsibilities between classes, work to cover living expenses and tuition, and don't have the credits to graduate after four years.

Yet when policymakers talk about boosting college graduation rates, they often seem to have an antiquated ideal of college in mind. A pair of studies released this month by the Campaign for College Opportunity found that accurate information about how students pursue college degrees and how long it takes them are two of the most critical but poorly understood aspects of higher education policy.

The studies examine student patterns at California's network of state universities and community colleges. Together these institutions make up the largest public higher-education system in the country, serve one of the nation's most diverse student bodies, and reflect patterns that have come to define the modern college experience in the United States.

At California's four-year universities, half of all students spend more than 4.7 years in school, the first study found. These students collectively spent over $220 million more in tuition, fees, and room and board than they would have if they had finished within four years. They forego even more in wages. Most students wind up taking multiple courses they do not need to graduate. And significant shares—particularly among black and Latino students—do not graduate at all.

The campaign's second report painted an even more grim picture for students attending the state's community colleges. Half of students enrolled in two-year programs, designed to lead to an associate's degree or transfer to a four-year institution, spend more than 4.1 years completing those classes.

"That's important because we know that the longer students spend in school, the less likely they are to finish," says Michele Siqueiros, executive director of The Campaign for College Opportunity. The campaign is a California-based nonprofit interested in boosting the share of students who attend college and keep the state economically competitive.

The campaign's reports depict graduation and enrollment trends in California in the 2011-2012 school year, but also closely reflect national student enrollment, graduation, and college cost trends, says Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, an organization doing similar work across the country.

"What we see in California is part of a pattern that's surprisingly consistent from state to state," says Jones. "Our picture of this 19-year-old going off to college is just not true. And students just aren't graduating in the numbers that we would like to see them graduate. It's all pretty different than the myth you see in the movies."

Across the country, just under 40 percent of all students earn a bachelor's degree in four years, Jones says. And less than 60 percent manage to do so after six, according to federal education data. Nearly half of all students—including the majority of black, Latino, and low-income students—attend community colleges. Only one-quarter of all U.S. students attend a four-year, residential college and graduate within four years, says Jones.

The Campaign for College Opportunity reports recommend a number of measures to boost graduation rates and reduce the time and money that individual students, their families, and government collectively spend on college. The recommendations include more explicit and frequent conversations with students and parents about the way that time spent in college and semesters spent in remedial classes can negatively affect graduation odds. The study suggests that students should only be required to take courses that bolster the types of math or writing skills that will support the kind of work they hope to do—meaning statistics, problem solving, and quantitative analysis rather than algebra and calculus for students who are not interested in science, medicine, or engineering. And those placed in remedial courses should participate in accelerated programs or those that simultaneously help students brush up on basic skills while also mastering new, college-level concepts in credit-granting courses.

The report also calls for a shift in on-campus academic advising that encourages students to enroll in a minimum of 15 credit hours each semester and developing clear and proscribed course pathways for all degree programs. Most "full-time" students in California and in schools across the country enroll in about 12 credit hours, the maximum grant and other low-cost federal financial aid programs will cover in a given semester. But that enrollment pattern automatically put students on a path to graduate in five years. Students need to enroll in a minimum of 15 credit hours a semester to graduate inside of four years.

In California, about 80 percent of students took just 12 credit hours during the 2011-2012 school year, the reports found. State aid and higher fee structures at public colleges and universities make it possible for students to take up to 15 credit hours without a need for additional funding. In other states that is not the case.

Many students have been encouraged or even advised to do so because they will have to pay for anything more, borrow the funds to cover the costs, or find scholarships that will do so, says Siqueiros, with College Opportunity. In at least five states, colleges have committed to encouraging students to enroll in 15 credit hours, Jones says. Other states are experimenting with accelerated remedial education and laws requiring students to develop a degree plan after one year in school.

The drive to enroll students in more classes shouldn't be interpreted as license for students to roam freely through their schools' course catalogues, the reports suggest. In stark contrast to the idea that college is a time for self-discovery and exploration, both Siqueiros and Jones suggest that students need regular sessions with academic advisers, clear academic and career plans, and, preferably, course prescriptions that will get them there as quickly as possible.

That's part of the experience at many elite schools. Even at other colleges and universities, students enrolled in programs such as nursing and engineering where a distinct list of courses must be taken in a predetermined order, these students graduate at a higher rate than others, Jones says.

It's little wonder that so many students spend more than four years in college, says Richard Veder, an Ohio University economist who studies economic issues in American education. Four- and six-year graduation rate data is available because of a federal mandate, says Veder. But colleges have little to no interest in revealing what share of students never graduate, or how long it takes students to earn a degree with only the equivalent of 12-credit hours each semester. Worse still, many students don't understand the way that the system and culture at their school shapes graduation rates.

A few years ago, Vedder examined the cost of attending expensive, elite public and private institutions such as the University of Chicago and Northwestern University—where most students graduate in four years—to the cost of attending a community college in the Chicago area. When Vedder accounted for the additional time that students attending the community college spent in school, the cost savings nearly evaporated.

"It's incredibly complex, and—I suppose you could argue—potentially depressing," says Vedder. "It all certainly runs counter to our idea that everyone should go to college, and that every college is equal and good."