After four solid years of classes, Eric Morath could have graduated from Michigan State University last May as a journalism major. Instead, uncomfortable about a tepid job market, Mr. Morath opted for a fifth year of college, adding a double major in economics to bring additional luster to a résumé that already included a grade point average of 3.7 and a stint as an editor on the school paper.
This may have been a good move for Morath - but not necessarily for his school. The number of college students who now take more than the standard four years to graduate has been steadily climbing - and that includes motivated students like Morath who once were likely to march through school on schedule.
The result has been a slow but steady erosion of four-year graduation rates. Only 35 percent of bachelor's degree recipients in 2000 completed their degrees in four years, compared with 39 percent in 1993, according to the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
For many colleges, the students who extend their stay cause only problems. For one thing, lingering students take up spaces that could otherwise go to new first-years. David Colburn, provost at the University of Florida, says the school receives 25,000 applications for 6,700 seats in the freshman class. The school is now striving to increase its four-year graduation rate from 52 percent to 75 percent in an effort to free up more of those coveted freshman seats.
Overcrowding is not the only difficulty. Strained budgets are also a big factor for many public universities. The longer students stay, the bigger the bill footed by taxpayers.
At public institutions, about two-thirds of educational costs are absorbed by the state, says Wes Habley, a director at ACT, Inc., which has tracked students' graduation rates since 1983.
In that context, students like Morath, pursuing a double major, present a quandary for administrators, says Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
"At public institutions, how do you allocate scarce institutional resources when money is tight?" Mr. Jones asks. So many universities are working to find ways to discourage students from staying on past the four-year mark.
Michigan State, for example, is considering moving to a flat-rate tuition, in which students would pay for five classes a semester no matter how many they actually take. The idea? To encourage students to take more classes a semester to stay on a four-year track.
The California State Board of Trustees has instead limited the number of credits required for all majors to help ease students through school on a speedier track.
But universities in the South and Southwest, regions in which population is growing, have been most active in devising ways to get students out in four years, says Sally Stroup, assistant secretary of the US Department of Education's Office of Post-Secondary Education. Texas lawmakers put into place a plan to forgive the loans of some students who graduate in four years. And in Florida, lawmakers are considering a punitive approach: charging out-of-state tuition to students who take classes beyond what is required.
"There are more and more innovations in states that see an enrollment crunch," says Ms. Stroup.
But in many cases, if college students are taking a longer time to cross the finish line, it's due to factors they can't control, says Will Doyle, a senior policy analyst at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
For many students, graduating on time is an impossible dream because they cannot get into the classes they need for their majors.
The University of Florida, for example, experienced a big jump in its four-year graduation rate after it implemented a system that guaranteed students places in required classes, Mr. Colburn says. After making that change - and starting an online tracking system that enabled students to see how much longer it would take them to graduate - its four-year graduation rate jumped from 38 percent in 1990 to 53 percent 2003.
Another factor is inadequate preparation for college. More entering students have to take remedial classes, says Mr. Doyle. That means they must wait to take classes required for their majors, pushing back their graduation dates, he said.
Then there are rising costs. With tuition rising and financial aid remaining flat, more students are working off-campus, which often translates into taking fewer courses a semester, Doyle says. "Some things are clearly outside of students' control."
That's one reason some experts doubt that offering incentives to graduate on time will be enough to boost graduation rates.
"They are political fixes that address the symptoms, not the underlying problem," says Mr. Habley of ACT.
Better to provide students with additional instruction in difficult classes and improve academic advising, he says. "The single most important factor is the interaction that student has with concerned individuals," Habley says.
That's the approach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which reaches out to at-risk students with additional tutoring and advice. Its four-year graduation rate for the class of 1998 was 67 percent, compared with 43 percent for all schools and high for a state school.
But UNC-Chapel Hill is a selective university. At less selective schools, it may prove more difficult to speed the graduation process. "It's a challenge for open-access institutions that are committed to making sure everyone gets in," Doyle says.
And it is those institutions that are likely to have the lowest four-year graduation rates, and that means students are less likely to graduate - ever.
"The longer it takes people, the more likely it is that other things come up in their lives," Stroup says.