The five-year four-year degree

Mariah Prowoznik remembers her orientation as a freshman at Central Michigan University four years ago. “There was a campus tour and lunch in the cafeteria,” said the Grand Rapids native. “Then there was a meeting where they told us how many credits we needed to graduate.”

One thing that wasn’t mentioned to the new freshman were the numbers that would play a large and expensive role in students’ impending college careers:

One in five.

That, Prowoznik would find out later, was the ratio of new freshmen at CMU who would earn a bachelor’s degree in the traditional four years.

“It’s frustrating,” said Prowoznik. “I double checked. I triple checked. Everyone kept telling me that I was on the right track. It wasn’t until I already had more than half of my requirements finished that the idea of a fifth year was even mentioned.”

Prowoznik won’t graduate until the spring of 2015. When she crosses the stage to get her degree, Prowoznik and her parents will have spent about $12,000 more than they would have if she’d graduated in four years.

“Between my tuition and the cost of another apartment lease,” Prowoznik said, “this extra year is going to really put a drain on things.”

Only about 20 percent of first-time freshmen enrolling at CMU earn a four-year degree in four years. The rate is even worse at some other Michigan public universities. At Lake Superior State and Oakland University, about one in six students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years; at Eastern Michigan University, it’s one in eight; Wayne State, one in 10; Saginaw Valley State, one in 11.

Twelve of Michigan’s 15 public universities have four-year graduation rates below the national average of 31 percent. (Only the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University are at or above U.S. norm). Those below-average four-year grad rates mean almost 3,000 Michigan students will spend more time on campus than their peers at public universities across the country, at a cost to them and their parents of about $30 million, or roughly 10 grand per kid.

Most of Michigan’s private universities also lag behind their peers nationally. Only four private colleges (Kalamazoo, Hope, Calvin and Albion) of 39 in the state have four-year graduation rates above the national private school rate of 52 percent.

Despite an emphasis on increasing college attainment in Michigan, four-year graduation rates have remained stubbornly low for decades, driving up student loan debt, emptying parents’ bank accounts, and putting a drag on the state economy.

“Should we accept a 20 percent grad rate over four years?” asked Lynn Blue, vice provost and dean of academic services and information technology at Grand Valley State University. “Heck no. Not as a parent or a taxpayer.”

More semesters. More loans

Americans owe more than $1.2 trillion for college. Student loan debt is now greater than the total Americans owe on credit cards and auto loans.

President Obama announced recently an extension of a program to cap monthly student loan payments, and Congress is wrestling with the issue.

The dirty secret of the student loan debt crisis is that the problem would be diminished significantly if more students earned degrees on time. That’s particularly true in Michigan, where most public universities have below-average four-year graduation rate and an above-average student debt load.

Those extra semesters on campus run up a hefty tab, in everything from tuition and books, to delayed entry in the workforce.

Tuition alone for a fifth year at a public university runs from $8,423 at Saginaw Valley State University to $14,812 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Tack on housing, food and books, and the cost can double.

Related stories:
Dude, where's my counselor?
Paying students to graduate
SEARCHABLE DATABASE: Where can Johnny get his diploma the fastest?

Four-year degree in six years

A lot of college students eventually get a degree.

At CMU, for example, while roughly 20 percent of incoming, first-time freshmen graduate in four years, an additional 37 percent of that original freshman class graduates within six years, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. At Northern Michigan University, 18 percent get a bachelor’s degree in four years, and an additional 26 percent within six years; at Western, it’s 24 percent in four years, and an additional 32 percent within six. (see chart above)

Even at six years, 11 of the state’s 15 universities have graduation rates below the national six-year grad rate of 59 percent.

“I would love that we get back to the 4-year degree, simply because you’re talking about a cost savings to everyone,” said Charlie Nutt, executive director of the National Academic Advising Association, a professional development organization for college advisors. “It’s a win-win across the board. It’s a cost-saver for taxpayers, universities and their students and families.”

Nutt cites the ability of universities to enroll larger numbers of freshman if fewer students are taking five or six years to graduate.

“If 80 percent are taking six years, you’re only able to bring in a certain number of freshman each year,” Nutt said. “From a financial standpoint, I see it as a problem. I’d like to see us to get a four-year mindset.”

Improving graduation rates is now a factor in the funding formula employed by state lawmakers for public universities. “It’s a concern,” admits Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, who is 46. “When I grew up, the normal was four years.”

Today, “most students work their way through college and paying the bills is difficult,” Schuitmaker said. “Five or six years is not unexpected.”

Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said he doesn’t believe there is incentive for graduates to want to finish earlier.

“In the middle of a recession, the incentive to finish in a hurry isn’t really there,” he said. “Especially if students can keep their financial aid, there’s no reason to be in a big hurry.”

Extra semesters are the most costly

But for many students, those extra semesters are the most costly of their academic careers. Institutional merit aid typically ends after eight semesters, leaving “super seniors” with sticker shock, says Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network.

“In institutional grants, a disproportionate amount of aid is given to students in their first and second year because it’s a recruitment strategy,” Johnson said. “Reflective of this, the borrowing limits from the federal government increase in the third and fourth year … and some students (must) take out the max loans.”

The rate of college students taking out federal student loans jumps 20 percent among those in their fifth year, and students borrowing more than $5,900 in one year jumps 18 percent, according to NCES.

There’s a large, less visible cost to the state, too, says Mitch Bean, of Great Lakes Economic Consulting and former director of the Michigan House Fiscal Agency.

Low four-year graduation rates do not have a direct impact on taxpayers, because state funding for public universities isn’t tied to enrollment. But those extra years in the dorms do put a drag on the state economy.

“The more educated your workforce, the more productive your economy,” Bean said. “If students are graduating in an average of five years instead of four, that means a lot fewer college grads. That extra year they’re out of the workforce, they’re not productively employed and not paying taxes.”

More student loans also mean larger monthly payments when they graduate. That means college grads are using paychecks for student loans rather than car loans or mortgages, Bean said.

Addressing the problem

There is no simple answer as to why many Michigan’s public university students take longer to graduate with a traditional bachelor’s degree than public university students in other states.

Rising tuition has changed the face of the average college student, particularly in public universities, said Nutt, of the national advisors group.

“In some of the state institutions in Michigan, students whose sole responsibility is being a student doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “Some are part-time students. Some are full-time. With a student working 30-40 hours in order to take a full load, it is pretty much impossible to make it out in four years.”

But according to Johnson, of the College Access Network, staying in school longer while working actually costs students more than borrowing money and graduating on time.

“The evidence is clear and compelling that it’s better to take on debt now and accumulate credits more quickly, than work at a slower pace and work your way through,” Johnson said. “Some states have implemented a policy of strong encouragement for students to take 15 credits per semester so they can graduate on time. But at universities, 12 (credit hours) is the number to be considered eligible as a full-time student.”

Fifteen credit hours per semester gives a student 120 credit hours (often the bar for a four-year undergraduate degree) in eight semesters; at 12 credit hours, it takes 10 semesters to reach 120.
What can be done?

One of the keys to increasing on-time graduation rates lies within academic advising.

“All of our research shows that students who have a relationship with a university (academic advisor) are more successful than those who don’t,” Nutt said. “By connecting with advisers or faculty, that student automatically is more successful from day one.”

Greater academic success naturally leads to higher graduation rates, and ultimately lower cost for students.

Grand Valley State has increased four-year graduation rates by paying students to earn degrees on time, and promoting an online system that keeps tabs on student progress.

But more progress needs to be made. “All projections show that the country is going to have a huge shortage of graduates as the economy bounces back,” said Callan, of the National Center for Public Policy and Education. “It’s hard to even get in the queue for a decent job if you don’t have a degree beyond high school. There’s an economic cost to that.”

For Nutt, the time for change is now.

“The campus has to make a commitment that we’re going to send the same message to all students – to help and provide assistance to allow students to graduate in a timely manner,” Nutt said.

As for CMU student Prowoznik, her college pathway has already been set – and for her, that means one more year before she can graduate with her bachelor’s degree.

“Something has to be done so more students don’t end up in the same situation,” she said.

Kyle Kaminski is a 2014 graduate of Central Michigan University, where this article was originally written for a journalism class in which Bridge Senior Writer Ron French was a guest advisor. French contributed to this report.

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Thu, 07/17/2014 - 9:59am
Perhaps the failure begins in High School. How many incoming Freshman are taking courses that are considered preparatory and do not count towards the degree, Courses like Pre Algebra, Basic Math, Grammar. The fact that High schools are teaching for the standardized tests in place of teaching critical thinking is part of the problem. 1 solution perhaps is to better utilize Community Colleges.
prospective col...
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 11:22am
While this... doesn't (as far as I can find) go through each college's remediation rate, it does cover the (a) statewide rate and (b) the rate of students in remedial classes from a particular high school. For example, for the school year 2011-12, 23.45% of student enrolled of "any college type" in the state of Michigan were enrolled in remedial courses (e.g. 17% in remedial math, 11% in writing, and 10% in reading). Of course students have to pay tuition for these classes, but their credits don't count toward graduation. If you go through a particular high school's numbers, they seem to be much more relevant than the (ACT) "college readiness" numbers cited by policy makers and those in the media.
Tue, 09/15/2015 - 10:55am
Prospective college parent, You mentioned students have to pay for the remedial courses, but the credits do not count towards their graduation. This is true, now lets look at a student who needs to take these "remedial" courses. Let's say they need to take 2 math, 2 reading and 2 writing remedial classes to prepare for the "college level" course work. This means this student is already 1 year behind since the remedial courses are typically a prerequisite to the next one. This means it would be difficult for this student to graduate in 4 years.
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 10:07am
Maybe do like Europe - find out in high school what the student's interests, skills etc. are. Then put some in an academic (college/university) path and some on a skilled trades path. In other words not everyone is college material, plus we need skilled trades people. A few more high school level classes that would qualify as college credits (AP classes) would also help. Plus eliminate some of the General Education classes in college. I have two sons who graduated from MSU and one who is a sophomore. All three have said there is a year or so of wasted required curriculum (Gen Ed). The university claims the Gen Ed classes are to make a more well rounded and wiser student. But again all 3 of my sons, as well as my sister who is a retired U of Minnesota professor, strongly disagree. There are some easy and logical ways to get an average student through in 4 years, some of which are mentioned in the article. The college and university administrators (supposedly some of our "best and brightest") need to make it happen. It would seem some of our "best and brightest" should be able to do that.
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 10:18am
Another structural factor is the programming of pre-requisites. If a course is over-subscribed, or the student misses the start of a sequence -- both can mean extending the academics another year. Along with providing better advising, there is also room for the university to provide a robust path to completion. Course sequences that force students to another year might be better structured as a 3+2 Bachelor/Masters sequence.
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 11:06am
Thanks for the very interesting article. I was inspired to look at this topic by a (now outdated) House Fiscal Agency report. When I take a couple of minutes out of my class time (for senior-level classes), or during our high school's open house, to show graduation rates of the state's fifteen public universities, jaws drop. Some students even think I'm lying. Most parents, though, seem to be calculating costs for additional years. This article (and the links I provide below) should be issued to every parent of each high schooler by his or her counselor. We're now shopping for colleges, and I've been using the numbers generated by the "compare colleges" function of There, you can see graduation rates and retention rates (e.g. how many students come back for their sophomore years). You can also look at something that the article doesn't appear to address, an institution's "transfer out" rate. For example, according to this site, the transfer rate at MSU is over 13%; at WMU, it's over 31%. Does this affect the graduation rates? "Low four-year graduation rates DO NOT HAVE A DIRECT IMPACT ON TAXPAYERS [emphasis added], because state funding for public universities isn’t tied to enrollment. But those extra years in the dorms do put a drag on the state economy." This statement is interesting. Specifically, it implies that universities don't receive state funding based on how many students attend the institution. Doesn't Lansing presume that part of the equation for state funding is how many students a school has? Isn't that why, earlier in the article, a GVSU administrator says, “Should we accept a 20 percent grad rate over four years? Heck no. Not as a parent OR AS A TAXPAYER [emphasis added].” And isn't it why, earlier in the article, the director of the NAAA says, “I would love that we get back to the 4-year degree, simply because you’re talking about a cost savings to everyone...It’s a cost-saver FOR TAXPAYERS [emphasis added], universities and their students and families.” Could the author of the article reconcile his claim with these two quotes? Are the two people quoted mistaken? Even if enrollment has nothing to do with state funding of a particular institution, does that institution simply dilute the money spent to educate students among more students, or do the tuition increases cover the shortfall? I've been preaching to my students (and will remind my child) that they should begin their days chanting, "fifteen, fifteen, fifteen." That is, as the article points out, how many credit hours a student must average, each semester, to graduate on time. Too often, students are deluded into thinking they're on track if they take at least twelve hours each semester. After all, twelve hours is, as the article says, the minimum number of credits to be considered a "full time" students (e.g. for loans); and students equate "full time" with "on track." What if the federal government limited loans to students who average 30 credit hours over the course of a calendar year (e.g. even including summers)? Even the additional credits taken during the summer (e.g. at the local community college, while at home) would lower students' (and parents') cost dramatically. At GVSU, has the administration established a causal link between paying students to graduate on time and higher on-time graduation rates? After all, the article, in the first graph, seems to imply that institutions with higher ACT scores of incoming freshmen have higher graduation rates. While I couldn't find numbers going back to 1990, I found that, in 2000, the average ACT score for incoming Lakers was a 23.1; for 2013, it was a 23.86. The rise in GPA for the same students went from 3.34 to a 3.52. Wouldn't one expect the graduation rates to rise for GVSU students, then? Or, again, has Allendale's administration shown a causal link? Finally, it would be interesting to note which programs within each institution have higher graduation rates. Granted, some degrees will very likely take more than four years (e.g. MSU's undergraduate teaching degree requires a full year of student teaching). However, in shopping for colleges, some MIAA schools we looked at celebrated their higher graduation rates; yet we found that some programs (or colleges) within the larger universities (that are analogous to the liberal arts degrees earned at MIAA colleges) have similar graduation rates (at, of course, much lower tuition). For example, an administrator at MSU's James Madison College told me that its four year graduation rate is about 67%. That's 14% above the general MSU graduation rate; and it's the same as Hope's and higher than Kalamazoo's. Again, thanks for the article! You've ruined my sleep for a while!
Rick Olson
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 11:27am
How quickly a student graduates is greatly in the control of the student. Expecting to graduate in 4 years while taking the minimum 12 credits to be considered a full time student is dumb. In 1970, I graduated from Michigan State in three years plus a summer term, taking up to 22 credits per term. And, I could not start at the level in Math that most students from bigger schools could. Did I have to work hard? Sure, but it was a lot cheaper. And, I worked at least 20 hours a week all the while during those three years. Was I an exceptional student? Probably not the average, but surely more motivated than others. Surely others could do it in four years. It may mean that the student may need to do a bit less partying, however.
Sally Adler
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 11:42am
Wonderful article! I find it interesting to note that no comment was made about how many students at universities with lower rates were taking longer to graduate because of working full time while going to school and also having family responsibilities. That would be an interesting comparison between U of M -AA and other excellent universities. Preparing students for university life/studies is a job community colleges do very well. With numerous student support services, quality remedial courses, assertive advising plans, and individual attention, community college is a value that shouldn't be passed up!
Tue, 09/15/2015 - 10:37am
Sally, This is such a great point. I live in an area where there are a number of satellite campuses from some great universities, and some of them have tailored there programs to fit the lifestyle of the working/family person who cannot take a "full load" (30 credits) per year to graduate in the 4 year time frame. It would be nice to see the difference between the traditional "main campus" percentage v the satellite campus percentage. I know a number of people who are going to school part-time, or have completed their degree part-time due to their life situation. The question is, were they successful in their pursuit in obtaining their degree, even if it took them 6-8 years due to their situation?
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 1:28pm
To get out in 4 years you have to start planning in high school by taking AP classes or the highest level math & English that you can, that way you'll have a jump start on all the basic requirements. My son started college with credit for 4 AP classes, tested out of the English requirements and was able to test up to a higher level language course. That meant after his first semester he already had enough credits to be a sophomore. I then helped him put together a spreadsheet that showed exactly how many credits were going to be needed, what class requirements were needed for graduation, how many credits and what classes for his major, and looked ahead at the schedules to make sure when the classes he was going to need were available and made note of that. You don't want to get to your last semester and find out a class that's required for your major isn't available. He updated the spreadsheet after every semester. He was then able to pick his classes and manage his schedule without fear that he was going to miss something. I don't think the advisors do enough to keep the kids on track or help them with the complications of their schedules. It's possible to get out in 4 years, but you have to be very prepared and have a plan.
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 1:54pm
It's not really clear from your article nor how what data was collected and to know what to make of this. Are you adjusting for people leaving after receiving a 2 year degree? Students who transfer to another school? Students unable to meet the academic standards dropping out or changing majors and the extra time brought with that? Schools with high numbers of part time students, who never intended to finish in four years? Is there a difference between schools having a large number of students seeking technical degrees (Say Mi Tech or Ferris, having highly structured course requirements) verses schools with many softy degrees with courses can easily be cobbled together to meet a diploma requirement? While no doubt schools use prerequisites and required general (propaganda courses) to pad their revenue, this doesn't give enough information and appears to be trying to make a problem yet not really sure what it is, not to mention the "solutions" that may be proposed to solve it.
Todd Smithee
Thu, 07/17/2014 - 9:57pm
I told my dad in 1985 that most kids at MSU take 5 years to graduate. He told me to take all the time I like but my brother was starting college in 4 years so I would be on my own after 4. Guess what? I was one of the only kids on my floor freshman year to graduate in 4 years. Quite whining and thanks for the boot in the butt Dad!
Fri, 07/18/2014 - 9:45am
I had a very similar conversation with my parents, and finished in 4 years. Mine was more like, "If you get your degree in 4 years, great! If you get 2 degrees in 4 years, awesome! If you get no degree in 4 years, bummer, but whichever way, we'll be done paying."
Fri, 07/18/2014 - 11:37am
Definitely the problem starts before college. I saw the ratings for the various school districts in the Michigan tri-county (Detroit metropolitan) area for college and job preparedness at high school graduation, and the numbers went from 0% readiness to a little over 60%. That means that at high school graduation, almost 40 to 100% of students from the various districts do not have the skills for college. Yet students even from the lowest-performing districts are in college or community college at higher percentages than their preparedness levels indicate, which means that post-secondary institutions are having to pick up the slack for unqualified students who may have potential but who have not attained a knowledge level to be able to start into true college-level work. That means colleges having to offer remedial, pre-college level classes to bring students up to speed in basic subjects like English and math. It then logically follows that educating these students through the associate's or bachelor's level will cost the schools and the taxpayers more.
Sat, 07/19/2014 - 5:19pm
The girl on the cover is so cute!!! :)
Wed, 07/23/2014 - 1:45pm
The four-year graduation rate listed above for Kalamazoo College should be 74%, not 63%. The six year rate (81%) is correct. The 63% error was on the IPEDS and College Navigator websites for many months. Kalamazoo College graduation rates for student cohorts dating back to 1995 can be found on the College’s website ( and have averaged 75-80% for many years. Jeff Palmer Associate Director of Communication Kalamazoo College
Thu, 07/31/2014 - 3:01pm
Excellent article! There are a variety of factors which can impact the length of time required for students to complete an undergraduate degree. But even allowing for some disagreement regarding precise accuracy of data the overall record as evidenced in this story is abysmal. I believe the issue of academic advising is critical. Many colleges rely exclusively on advising systems which are housed in academic departments or in an individual college such as Business Administration, Education, Liberal Arts, etc.. Generally what students get from such advising is a ho-hum review of course requirements and perhaps some scheduling assistance. A student who is uncertain regarding their academic direction or who wishes to change programs is frequently at the mercy of individuals who lack the ability to adequately address such concerns. Even worse, sometimes the advice given neglects completely such matters as employment prospects for a given major or it reflects a departmental bias toward keeping the student listed as a major in a particular program. Numbers do count and "turf wars" do exist in higher education. Colleges need to maintain an advising office that is truly student centered and devoted to providing important and unbiased assistance. Something at the opposite end of the continuum where a student shows up in a department, declares her/his intent to major in a subject, and emerges with the list of course requirements for the degree! There are few colleges that provide such high quality advising but often they can be found in an Honors College where the advisors offer much more in the way of assistance than simply detailing requirements and perhaps assisting the student in her/his registration.
Tue, 08/12/2014 - 10:49am
I have four out of my five person household in college right now. My two children did everything right- earned a year or more of college credit in high school, great grades, scholarships, and dutifully monitor requirements to help ensure graduation in four years. It just won't happen. The list of what my son needs for his chemical engineering degree is daunting, confusing to follow, and it is easy to miss a requirement from the parents' perspective. His classes are stacked in such a way that the sequence of prerequisites needed to move forward in the program may easily pull him off track. Parents have no way to confirm with the school that courses are completed and he is on track. I can only hope my son has checked as carefully as he claims. My daughter who earned 1.5 years of college credit in high school will require 5 years- yes 5 years not including what she earned in high school. She switched majors after her first year at OU going from a Pre-Med track into nursing. Classes that she already took vary just slightly from the pre-nursing requirements- and always erring on the more difficult side. Doesn't matter- she has to retake the nursing prereqs. Her program is also locked into sequencing issues. Her enrollment in the honors college is actually hindering the process because those added requirements are slowing down her degree completion. I can't believe I am writing this- but I wish she would have not pursued the honors college route. It is adding in a ton of cost of which she will not benefit that much from in her field. Yes, I understand that a well rounded student is important- truly I do. But the economic reality of paying for all of this tuition on a teacher's salary does not mesh with that ideal. I agree with other posters. She has a long list of requirements that simply will not do much to help her in the field of nursing. My son had less "wasted" classes, but still it is present. Neither can finish their chosen degree in the 120 credit hours stated in this article. Couple that with the overly prescribed sequence of classes that is so terribly easy to get off track with and you have a recipe for 5th year students. Then again, the universitys are big business. It benefits them to have as many students sitting in classes as possible.