Time to Degree: A National View

Posted by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on October 17, 2016

NSC Report Blows Up Conventional Wisdom around “Time to Degree”

For years, the commonly held talking point around time to degree completion has been two years for an associate’s degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree. NCAN members have long known that many of the low-income, first-generation students they serve take longer than that, but a recent National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) report offers evidence that these time-to-degree projections are unrealistic for the average student nationally.


The NSCRC examined more than 2 million students who received an associate’s as their first and only degree or received their first bachelor’s degree between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015. They specifically looked at: (1) the amount of time that elapsed between first enrollment and degree receipt and (2) the amount of time students were actually enrolled, converted into academic years.

Overall, associate’s degree-earners attained a degree after being enrolled for 3.3 academic years and over 5.5 years of elapsed time from first enrollment to attainment. Bachelor’s recipients were enrolled for 5.1 academic years over an elapsed time of 5.7 years before attainment. To add even more evidence that the two- and four-year time-to-completion standards are unrealistic, the NSCRC’s research found that “among associate degree earners from two-year public institutions, only 14.7 percent received their degrees in two calendar years and only 7.4 percent had two academic years of full-time or full-time equivalent enrollment,” and among bachelor’s recipients from four-year public institutions, “37.5 percent received their degrees in four calendar years and only 10.1 percent had four academic years of full-time or full-time equivalent enrollment.”

The report notes that, “The change in traditional timelines for college completion can become expensive when viewed in terms of college costs, taxpayers’ subsidies, and the wages students forfeit with each additional semester of enrollment…However, we also recognize that a longer time to degree may not be solely in control of the institutions or policymakers. It may also be an effect of the changing economic, social, and cultural circumstances of students.”

This finding is one NCAN already had some evidence of for member-served students. In the first two Benchmarking Project reports, cumulative degree completion rates nearly doubled between the fourth and sixth years of the enrollment window.

NCAN members should pass these findings along to their students so they understand that “the norm” is no longer two- or four-year degree attainment. At the same time, students must understand that taking a break or elongating time to degree costs money and time and puts them at increased risk for stopping out.


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