More Students Working Longer Hours = More years to Graduation

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American youths are taking longer now to complete college than they did in the 1970s because they have to work more hours to pay for school, and colleges have less money to spend on course offerings and other resources for the students, a new working paper suggests.

“For many students, family economic circumstances have eroded relative to the cost of college, contributing to the need to increase employment to cover a greater share of college costs,” states the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, titled “Increasing Time to Baccalaureate Degree in the United States.”

“Consequently, students in the more recent cohorts are working a significantly higher number of hours while they are in school,” the paper states. “Although the magnitude of the effect of increased employment on degree progress is hard to ascertain with precision, the direction of the effect is unambiguous, and our lowerbound estimates suggest increased working behavior alone can explain about 71.9 percent of the mean increase in time to degree.”

The researchers – professors John Bound at the University of Michigan, Sarah Turner at the University of Virginia and Michael F. Lovenheim at Cornell University – readily admit the limitations of their data.

For instance, the data they examined was dated. Specifically, they examined and compared the percentage of high school graduates from the Class of 1972 who earned a four-year college degree within four years versus the percentage that did so from the Class of 1992. (It was 58 versus 44 percent, respectively, which means significantly fewer youths are finishing four-year degrees within four years now than before. The researchers say they examined those two classes because they could not find identical data sets for latter groups.)

While the last group they looked at graduated from high school nearly 20 years ago, the researchers said they believe not much has changed for subsequent groups in terms of how long it is taking them to get through college, and that their findings apply to the current situation on campus for today’s youth.

What did change from 1972 to 1992, the researchers said, was how long it took students to get through college, 4.69 years versus 4.97 years, respectively.

The researchers say the reason is because youth ages 18 through 21 from the latter group were working more hours per week than their predecessors from the former group, 12.4 hours versus 9.5 hours, respectively.

The researchers also contend that a reduction in resources among less selective colleges in the public sector helps explain why it takes youths longer to get through school now than before.

Some of the researchers’ findings are quite nuanced, complicated and somewhat contradictory.

For instance, the researchers say they found no evidence that a change in academic preparedness was causing youths to take longer to finish college. However, they said that declining academic preparation for college “can explain a small but non-trivial amount” in the increase in the amount of time it takes for youths to earn a four-year degree if they began at a community college.

They also argue that increases in student-faculty ratios “can explain some of the expansion in time to degree,” particularly among less selective colleges, and that colleges with larger cohorts of students cannot always accommodate those youths in terms of offering enough sections of the courses they need to graduate.

“Students in a large cohort that cannot be accommodated fully by the university face an increased cost to obtaining the requisite number and distribution of courses to earn a degree,” the paper states. “It is straightforward to see how such institutional barriers lead to delays in degree progress.”

To obtain a copy of the paper, which costs $5 online, visit www.nber.org.