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Completing College in Four Years Is a 'Myth,' Says Report Calling for Reforms

Since the vast majority of college students don't finish a degree in four years, radical changes are needed in the way higher education pathways are structured, according to the nonprofit Complete College America report released Monday.

Just 5 percent of students pursuing an associate degree graduate in two years and at public four-year institutions, just 19 percent finish on time at non-flagship schools and 36 percent do so at flagship institutions, reports the Indianapolis-based organization, which is devoted to helping states increase certificate and degree attainment.

"The Four-Year Myth" outlines the dismal track record for college completion with just 50 of more than 580 public four-year institutions boasting on-time graduation rates of 50 percent or more for first-time, full-time students. The extra time on campus is costly, with two extra years of college translating into nearly 70 percent debt, the report notes.

"Metrics like this are unacceptable, especially when we consider that students and their families are desperately trying to control the skyrocketing costs of higher education," the report says..

To put students on a faster, more efficient track, Complete College America suggests a more structured method for college advising and program delivery. The Guided Pathways to Success (or GPS) would require students to take a certain set of courses each semester, according to their major, to put them on a schedule that would lead to on-time graduation.

Part of the current problem leading to lingering time on campus is unclear expectations. Many students graduate with excess credits that don't count toward their degree, the researchers found. The GPS idea is that students would make informed choices based on a coherent program, rather than randomly selecting individual courses.

"Think of it as a mutual responsibility agreement," the report suggests. The new approach would mean students would have to commit to a full load of 15 credits for eight semesters, and colleges, in turn, would need to provide clearly defined degree maps and closely monitor student progress. The report highlights the success of the strategy at Arizona State University where graduation rates have improved by 16 percentage points with the GPS system.

"GPS take the guesswork out of charting a path to on-time graduation, empowering students with informed choices and making college more affordable," the report concludes.

The Complete College America report includes a state-by-state breakdown of graduation rates for certficates,and  associate and bachelor's degrees, separating students by demographic groups and comparing full-time versus part-time attendance.

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