Public regional universities have played a vital role in this country in providing college access to broad sectors of the population. While policymakers and college leaders have focused appropriately on the valuable access mission, the traditional goal of that access, college graduation within a four-year window, has become an increasingly unusual occurrence. Four-year college graduation has declined over the past 40 years, with students taking an increasingly long time to graduate. By 2009, across the public four-year college sector, only 38.4 percent of first-time bachelor’s degree recipients graduated within 48 months of enrollment. The problem is not limited to students taking a semester or two beyond the minimum. For students who began their studies at a public four-year institution, 27 percent took longer than five years to graduate. The numbers for the nonflagship segment of the public university sector are worse. Only 16 percent of full-time students at non-flagship universities graduate in four years, and the average time-to-degree for full-time students is 4.9 years.
Excess credits are another measure of untimely graduation. Students in non-flagship public universities graduate with an average of 136.2 credits, even excluding remedial credits, far more than the 120 semester credits typically required for a bachelor’s degree. Excess time and excess credits have overlapping, but not identical, explanations. It would be difficult to accumulate a lot of excess credits without also extending enrollment beyond four years, simply because it requires an average of 15 completed credits each of two semesters for four consecutive years to complete 120 credits. But a student can take more than four years to graduate even without taking excess credits if he or she attends part-time or even at the federally defined “full-time” rate of 12 credits per semester. Part-time enrollment is a major factor in excess time to graduation in non-flagship universities, as only 26 percent of undergraduates in fall 2012 enrolled in a course load that would put them on track to graduate on time. But as we will detail throughout this paper, there are many reasons why students take excess credits, such that for most students enrolled in non-flagship public universities, the excess time and excess credit problems co-exist.
Excessive time-to-degree is a worsening problem, especially in public regional universities where there are fewer resources to help low-income, at-risk populations. Researchers compared the 1972 cohort with the 1992 cohort of high school graduates and found a statistically significant decline of 13.7 percentage points in four-year graduates and an increase in mean time-to-degree from 4.48 to 4.81 years. They found the increases to be greatest in the “non-top 50 public sector.” They ruled out changes in college preparedness or the demographic composition of degree recipients as potential explanations for increased time-to-degree, finding instead that the increase was related to resources—both the decline in institutional resources in the less-selective public sector and the likely related increased hours of employment among students who feel they must work more to meet rising college costs. They note, in particular, the impact that scarce institutional resources can have on students’ ability to access needed courses. This trend of increased time-to-degree persists in more recent data, with public universities lagging behind private universities, especially in broad-sector public universities.