More Students Working Longer Hours = More Years to Graduation

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American youths are taking longer 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 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, the last year for which identical data were available. It was 58 versus 44 percent, respectively, which means significantly fewer youths were finishing four-year degrees within four years in 1992 than before.

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 that 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.

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