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Higher Education and Policymakers: Traditional Timeframes and Pathways Don’t Work for Every College Student

by NSC Blog | Sep 28, 2016 | Research Reports, Research Services, Signature Reports |

By Doug Shapiro, Executive Research Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Last week, the Research Center released a new nationwide report, which analyzed the college pathways of more than two million students, demonstrating that college students now earn their bachelor’s degree in five to six years.

The results clearly demonstrate the need for the higher education community and policymakers to acknowledge the new normal and the fact that traditional time frames will not work for every college student.

Figure 2. Time to Degree for Associate (N=564,263) and Bachelor’s (N=1,470,652) Degree Earners by Age and Type of Institution where Degree was Received

Throughout the report, we differentiated enrolled time and elapsed time for a reason. Extended active enrollment may mean excessive credit, which has financial implications for students (e.g., poor academic planning, changing a major, enrolling in courses that do not count toward a degree, etc.). While additional years of elapsed time likely means enrolling part time or taking time off from work, family obligations, military service or, in some cases, travel for experience.

As our results demonstrate, very few students finish their degree in what is perceived as a normal time to degree, whether it is measured in enrolled or elapsed time. It is important, therefore, that institutions and policymakers continue to take measures to minimize the cases where inadequate guidance or academic advising results in excessive credit or having insufficient financial resources causes stop outs and part-time enrollment.

However, public policies affecting both students and institutions may end up penalizing those who do not fit the traditional mold, rather than finding ways to serve their needs. Acknowledging and accepting the reality of today’s students and their non-traditional pathways can lead to better policies both at the national and institutional levels, leading to greater student success.

“The results clearly demonstrate the need for the higher education community and policymakers to acknowledge the new normal and the fact that traditional time frames will not work for every college student. “

Doug Shapiro
Executive Research Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

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