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."