Why College Drags on So Long

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

In Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard, one of the memorable characters is Trofimov, a student who is crowding thirty but seems to have no pressing desire or need to leave the university (although he preaches the need for Russians to work). The student who graduates and then moves back to his parents’ home is the more familiar stereotype, but the perpetual student remains a well-known image. In fact, there is evidence that college students are taking increasing amounts of time to complete their bachelor’s degrees. This behavior runs counter to the expectation that students would seek faster completion because of the steadily increasing value of a college degree. Having recently written a book about college majors, Panicked Student's Guide to Choosing a College Major, I wondered whether there is a connection between lengthy college stays and indecisiveness about choice of college majors.

Elongation of college attendance in Saudi Arabia actually brought me some work about 10 years ago. College students there pay no tuition and even earn a stipend while they are enrolled, so these students lack some of the pressures toward degree completion that most American students feel. In the wake of the first Gulf War, which the kingdom had largely financed, and as the result of a period of low oil prices, the Saudi government was facing financial difficulties and wanted to reduce the expenses of supporting the large number of slow degree completers. A Saudi university asked me to develop a computer-based program, which eventually took shape as Career Oasis, to help college students decide on a career and a major. I don’t know whether or not Career Oasis actually resulted in speedier degree completion, and I have reason to be skeptical, because indecisiveness seems not to have been the major reason Saudi students were tarrying on campus.

Recent research suggests that indecisiveness also is not the major reason for delayed degree completion in the United States. Ironically, the situation here seem to be opposite of what I found in Saudi Arabia. The problem here is not the generosity of the university and the financial security that students feel; rather, it’s the paucity of university resources and the lack of student financing.

In “Increasing Time to Baccalaureate Degree in the United States” (PDF), three researchers (John Bound, Michael F. Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner) looked at longitudinal data about American college students and their rate of degree completion. The researchers found that most of the slow-down in the rate of completion can be attributed to students “who begin their postsecondary education at public colleges outside the most selective universities,” especially low-income students. The reason was not that these students are more poorly prepared to complete college.

One important reason the researchers found is the crowding that occurs when the student-to-faculty ratio climbs at financially strapped universities. Students find that they cannot enroll in the next course they need to take for their major, either because it is not being offered or because they are at the rear of the queue.

The other major reason for delayed graduation is the financial pressures on students to work to pay for the ever-increasing costs of college. Every hour spent working is an hour not spent on completing degree requirements.

Even if indecisiveness is not the main cause of delayed degree completion, I know that it is a factor for some students, so I expect that my Panicked Student’s Guide will help shorten some undergraduate stays. Perhaps more important, the book can motivate students by steering them towards more satisfying majors, and it can make their time in college--however long that is--turn out to be a better investment by leading to a more satisfying career.


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