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The New Reality for College Students: Earning a Bachelor’s Degree Takes 5 to 6 Years and Students Attend Multiple Institutions

“Families and policymakers need to plan accordingly for this new reality”

HERNDON, VA (Sept. 19, 2016) – Today’s college student earns his or her bachelor’s degree in five to six years, according to a new nationwide report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The Research Center analyzed the college pathways of more than two million students who completed an associate or bachelor’s degree in 2014-15, regardless of how long it took them to finish.

Bachelor’s degree earners take 5.1 academic years, on average. The average length of active enrollment for bachelor’s degree earners from four-year public institutions is 5.2 academic years of full-time equivalent enrollment over a span of 5.6 calendar years. Students graduating from four-year private nonprofit institutions took slightly less, 4.8 academic years over 5.4 calendar years. It takes 5.8 academic years for students attending four-year private for-profit institutions, whose enrollments stretch across 8.8 calendar years. Meanwhile, students earning an associate degree took 3.3 academic years of enrollment, on average, spanning 5.6 calendar years. See Figure 1 in the report for a visual comparison.

This report, “Time to Degree,” captures all associate and bachelor’s degree earners, regardless of how long it took them, and provides a comprehensive view of student success overall, in particular, non-traditional students. By looking backward to identify enrollment patterns well beyond the standard time limits of 150 percent of normal program length, the report captures a more complete picture of student experiences, including many who didn’t finish until long after the official graduation rates stopped being counted.

“Today’s student enrollment patterns are markedly different from what has long been perceived as normal, and these non-traditional behaviors have a dramatic effect on time to degree,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Research Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Each additional term or semester has the potential to increase the cost to the student, both through foregone earnings and additional tuition expenses. Yet, spells of part-time enrollment and non-enrollment often enable students to mitigate these effects by combining earning and learning. Families and policymakers need to plan accordingly for this new reality.”

Other findings include:

  • Half of all bachelor’s degree earners from four-year public institutions took more than five academic years’ worth of active enrollment to finish their degrees.
  • Students who participated in dual enrollment during high school shortened their time for an associate degree by half an academic year, or about a full semester of enrolled time.
  • A quarter of all bachelor’s earners from any institution, more than 370,000 graduates, did not finish within six calendar years.
  • Nearly two-thirds of bachelor’s degree earners and more than 80 percent of associate degree earners had at least some part-time enrollments. For associate degree earners, going part-time more than doubled the average number of years between starting and finishing. For bachelor’s degree earners, it added more than two years.
  • Women who were older than 20 when they started college took the longest to receive an associate degree, 7.2 calendar years from start to finish. They spent 8.8 calendar years, on average, for a bachelor’s degree.
  • Multiple-institution attendance patterns are prevalent among all degree earners, regardless of the length of active enrollment. For example, 64 percent of all bachelor’s degree earners attended more than one institution before finishing.

The data for this report were drawn from the StudentTracker® and DegreeVerify℠ services administered by the National Student Clearinghouse®, which tracks more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions and 96 percent of college enrollments nationwide across all postsecondary institutions, including: two-year and four-year institutions, public and private institutions, and nonprofit and for-profit institutions.

About the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center™

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The Research Center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the Research Center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes. To learn more, visit http://nscresearchcenter.org.

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Current Term Enrollment Estimates – Fall 2016