Fewer than half of students graduate in four years at 33 of the 50 state flagship schools. The overall four-year graduation rate is 31 percent for public colleges and 52 percent for private ones, the federal government reported this year.
The universities of Maryland and Virginia are among the exceptions, with on-time graduation rates of 63 percent and 85 percent, respectively. U-Va.’s rate is the highest among public flagship schools.
“Four years and out” is a long tradition at private colleges, a value reinforced by the parents who pay the bills. Public universities, by contrast, have long tolerated the five- or six-year degree. But too often, the slow track leads nowhere.
“The longer it takes people to graduate, the less likely they are to graduate — ever,” said William Bowen, former Princeton president and co-author of the book “Crossing the Finish Line.”
Here at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, about half the students graduate on time. Nick Korger said he arrived in Madison four years ago “with absolutely no clue what I wanted to do.” He thought about pre-med but washed out after seeing his first biology grades. Now he’s studying history and English, writing for the campus newspaper, and driving a truck in the summer.
He plans to return in the fall for a fifth year.
“I’m gonna go watch all my friends graduate,” said Korger, 21, of Oshkosh, Wis. “And if they’re still in the state, I hope they’ll all come watch me graduate.”
Colleges are mobilizing on the issue for several reasons. Public tuition and fees have doubled since the mid-1990s, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to an average $8,244. President Obama has set a goal for the nation to regain the world lead in college attainment by 2020. The economic downturn has pushed state lawmakers to target perceived collegiate “slackers” and the tax dollars that subsidize their education.
In Texas, the state pays an average of $7,563 annually per student, said Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro (R). Each dawdling student, she said, “prevents another student from coming in and starting that process.”
This year, the University of Texas at Austin announced a push to raise its on-time graduation rate to 70 percent by 2016, from the current 53 percent. UT President Bill Powers said the goal is “ambitious but attainable.”
Indiana University will offer discounted courses this summer to encourage on-time graduation. The University at Buffalo in New York created an on-time graduation pledge, hoping to raise its rate from about 45 to 60 percent. Half the incoming class has signed it.