Friday, June 19, 2009

Commandment #8: Decrease Time To Degree Completion

Commandment #8. Eliminate funding to undergraduate students after four years of full time equivalent attendance; limit Ph.D. funding also to four years --incentivize schools to end long term (five year or more) Ph.D. attendance.

by Jonathan Leirer

One outstanding factor contributing to the cost of an education is the time it takes students to complete the degree. According to a 2003 longitudinal study authored by the NCES (The Condition of Education 2003 –Indicator 21: Time to Bachelor’s Degree Completion) the average time to completion for a bachelor’s degree is slightly higher than 55 months - roughly four and a half years. The study also reveals many other intuitive trends: students who switch institutions tend to take longer to graduate; students tend to graduate in less time as their parents’ education increases; older students take longer to graduate; students with better cumulative grade point averages graduate sooner, with one notable exception – students at 4-year private not-for-profit institutions with cum gpas above 3.5 took longer to graduate than students with cum gpas between 3.0 and 3.5, as well as students with gpas between 2.5 and 3.0.

Many of those factors are out of the control of public policy save one- that students who change schools take longer to graduate. Because this represents about 46% of the students receiving degrees, policy impacting transfers will have a large effect on graduation times. Without more detailed data, we will venture an educated guess that transfer students take longer to graduate because of imperfections and impediments associated with transferring college credit from one institution to another. This is something that could be alleviated, at least partially, by increased transparency about coursework and reciprocity agreements between instructions (particularly, between 4-year institutions and the 2-year institutions that often feed into them.)

Because 2-year institutions are significantly less expensive than 4-year institutions, encouraging students to start at 2-year institutions and transfer to 4-year institutions could be an extremely effective cost-saving measure. However, as previously mentioned, transfers tend to increase the time to graduation. In fact, students who start at 2-year institutions and transfer to 4-year institutions (which constitute about 14% of students, at the time of the study) take an average of 71 months to complete their degree. The time to completion is, however, lower for students who transfer to public 4-year institution (68.7 months) compared to those who transfer to private, not-for-profit 4-year institution (74.5 months). That is nearly a year and a half longer than the average for all graduates (55 months) and nearly a year longer than those who transfer from one 4-year institution to another, suggesting that there is some factor specific to 2-year institutions which may hinder transferring credits.

However, many of these points may be moot considering the perverse incentives students and institutions have to keep students in class longer. For universities, the incentives are obvious. The longer a student takes to earn a degree the more money the university receives. For students, the incentive may by a little more opaque. While there is a high opportunity cost to staying in school over working full-time, the structure of student aid financing gives students an incentive to stay. While in school, education loans are deferred (sometimes with the interest subsidized as well), funding is available, and the stress and responsibility of the “real world” stay distant and unobtrusive. While not an attack on the policy of deferring loan payments, the enabling effect of such policies should be recognized. With that in mind, perhaps the best policy to decrease time to completion without placing undue burden on the students would be to limit funding to 4-years of full-time equivalent attendance. This would give students the incentive to graduate in a timely manner, perhaps ultimately saving them, and taxpayers, thousands in unnecessary educational costs.

This approach can be used in our nation’s graduate programs as well, which are in dire need of reform. According to the December 2007 publication of "Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Analysis of Baseline Program Data from the Ph.D. Completion Project" by the Council of Graduate studies, only 1 in 10 PhD students obtain their degree within 4 years. Even after a decade of graduate study, less than 60% of the students have completed their degrees – in the Humanities, the number drops to under 50%! So what’s going on here? One issue, oddly enough, is tenure. As a former PhD student myself, I solicited a lot of advise about my career goals, and one recommendation I heard repeatedly was, “Stay in grad school until you have a few publications or at least a revise and resubmit.”

It was recommended that I start publishing before the “tenure clock” starts ticking, therefore giving me a head start in the publication race. With such strong disincentives to graduate, it’s no wonder that time to completion is so high. How can this problem be addressed? Well, one could take the route that Harvard University did a few years back: tell departments that if their current students don’t finish, they won’t be allowed to admit new ones. It worked for Harvard. Even if the departments’ incentives are in line, they still need to motivate the students to complete their coursework and write their dissertations. One method of achieving such a goal would be to eliminate funding for doctoral students after a set amount of time has elapsed, probably around 4 or 5 years. With the prospect of a loss of funding, doctoral students would be very motivated to finish their degree requirements in a timely and efficient fashion.


capeman said...

The author failed to complete a Ph.D. program, if I read correctly. And he's giving advice about how to shorten completion times and increase completion rates?

capeman said...

There is a lot of fallacious reasoning going on here. Let's parse part of the article

"Because 2-year institutions are significantly less expensive than 4-year institutions, encouraging students to start at 2-year institutions and transfer to 4-year institutions could be an extremely effective cost-saving measure."

While community colleges may charge less, they are not actually less costly. As everyone who is aware of how university finances work knows, the lower division (first two year) courses subsidize the upper division courses. It's entirely possible that with their large classes for intro courses, universities actually deliver them at lower cost per student than do community colleges.

Furthermore, as the author notes, degree completion rates for community college students are much lower than for students who start out in a 4 year college or university. So the actual cost per bachelor's degree is not lower at all, it is probably much higher.

One reason, as the author notes, may be the lack of transferability of community college credits.

However, I work in a state system that has reciprocity agreements, common course numbers for intro courses, full "articulation" as they put it (transparency, transferability, etc.)

And still, the community college transfers have a very high attrition rate.

One reason is that often the courses aren't really comparable. Grades tend to drop by a half to a full unit for transfers. Often the students aren't really prepared for the upper division courses when they transfer.

Community colleges serve a number of very useful purposes. But the idea that a move to do the first two years there will save money while somehow not harming and even improving completion rates is just baloney.

Cowboy said...

"The author failed to complete a Ph.D. program, if I read correctly. And he's giving advice about how to shorten completion times and increase completion rates?

I don't think any one needs to be an idiot to see that this comment is idiotic. See the parallel?

capeman said...

Thanks, Cowboy, very perceptive, very perceptive.