One More Reason College Is So Expensive

One More Reason College Is So Expensive

Those familiar with the 1978 campus comedy Animal House will recall the line from John Belushi's character, Bluto, who, on learning that he would soon be expelled from the university, lamented, "Seven years of college down the drain!"

Today, the laugh may be on us -- or more precisely, on college students, their parents, and the taxpayers who help fund higher education. Why? Because "four-year college" today takes most students significantly longer than four years, raising still higher the cost of higher education.

As the college-bound public becomes more desperate over tuition hyperinflation and the concomitant ballooning of student-loan debt, it needs also to become more aware of this additional obstacle to college affordability. Accounts in the media recently have begun to call attention to this dynamic -- and to college students' relative obliviousness to the toll taken on their financial futures by failing to graduate in four years.

UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute conducted a national survey of college freshmen, finding that nearly nine out of ten believe that they will complete their bachelor's degrees in four years. But the odds against this are formidable. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, today, fewer than half of all students succeed in graduating in four years. Worse, even after six years in college, roughly 45 percent of students still have failed to complete their degrees. Every semester adds to a student's total college bill -- and, for a growing number, to the student-loan debt they will acquire in the process. Delayed graduation also carries an opportunity cost: Every extra semester spent in college is another half-year of lost earnings.

According to one report, citing data compiled by Complete College America, "the average added cost of just one extra year at a four-year public university is $63,718 in tuition, fees, books, and living expenses, plus lost wages each of those many students could have been earning had they finished on time." The report also cites a study by Campaign for College Opportunity, which, looking at higher-education costs in California, calculates that "the average student at a California State University campus who takes six years instead of four to earn a bachelor's degree will spend an additional $58,000 and earn $52,900 less over their lifetimes than a student who graduates on time, for a total loss of $110,900."

Why do students saddle themselves with these additional expenses? A number of factors are at play. First, too many students, though intent on graduating in four years, nonetheless fail to register for a sufficient number of course each semester. The average bachelor's degree consists of roughly 120 credit hours, which means that, to graduate in four years, a student must take, on average, 15 hours a semester, every semester, for four years.

Such rudimentary calculations would seem easily to fall within the capacity of those who qualify to attend a four-year college, but, according to a story citing the findings of the education-consulting group HCM Strategists, roughly half of today's students fail to make this calculation -- or, if they make it, fail to act on it. HCM surveyed freshmen in Indiana and California who had indicated that they intended to graduate in four years. HCM discovered that only half of these students had signed up for the number of courses needed to reach their goal.

This failure to take the requisite number of courses points to the second factor explaining why students fail to graduate to graduate in four years -- faulty advising. As someone who taught in universities in the 1980s and '90s, I can testify that part of this failure owes to the fact that, at too many institutions today, full-time tenured and tenure-track professors do less student advising than they did in the past, if they do any at all.

In some cases, these advising functions have been transferred from the faculty to "professional advising offices." Although this move is intended to free up faculty time in order to allow professors to devote more effort to research, students have suffered as a result. Professors know better what the strengths and weaknesses of their advisees are, know better which professors and which programs are stronger and weaker, and, by virtue of their training, have a deeper understanding of which courses contribute best to a meaningful college experience. Doubtless such praise may overestimate the talents and motivation of some professors while underestimating those of professional advisers, but, as a former academic as well as a parent of four college students, I've experienced how deficient "professional academic advisers" can be.

Another factor explaining students' failure to graduate in four years has nothing to do with their intelligence or motivation, and everything to do with the failure of our colleges and universities to keep up their end of the bargain. At too many schools, even students who are willing and able to take the needed 15 hours a semester cannot do so, because the courses required for graduation are not offered with sufficient regularity to make a four-year stint possible.

"State budget cuts" are sometimes cited by universities as the cause for the dearth of course offerings, but this argument does not wash here in my home state of Texas. Statistics compiled by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board demonstrate that, from 2000 to 2010, state funding for public higher education did in fact decline -- 15.9 percent on an inflation-adjusted, per-full-time-pupil basis. However, during the same period, public-university fees and tuition collected increased 76.1 percent. In Texas, at least, the whole truth behind the "state-budget-cuts-made-us-do-it" half-truth is that there has been a mild decrease in state funding accompanied by a comparatively wild increase in university spending. Apparently, not enough of this spending is being used to ensure that a sufficient number of courses is offered each year to allow students to graduate on time. Those outside Texas would be well advised to investigate whether this scenario applies to their states also.

If justice delayed is justice denied, a bachelor's degree delayed is a bachelor's degree made more expensive. Students and their parents need to get the message, and universities need to devote more effort to making the "four-year degree" a practical reality once again.

Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush. He recently published Investigating American Democracy with Gary D. Glenn (Oxford University Press).

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