A decorated graduation cap on display during commencement on May 10, 2019 at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Julian Alexander)

Traditionally, a bachelor’s degree takes four years to complete, but this isn’t always the case for some college students. Although graduation rates are on the rise, many students at the University of Georgia take longer than four years to graduate.

According to UGA Today, UGA’s four-year completion rate as of October 2019 is 69%. The university’s six-year completion rate is 87%, its highest ever. For comparison, the average six-year completion rate for UGA’s peer institutions is 79%, while the average four-year completion rate is 56%.

According to the Office of Institutional Research, UGA’s comparator peer institutions include Virginia Tech, Michigan State, University of Florida, Ohio State, University of Kentucky, University of Maryland and more.

UGA’s freshman class of 2012 had a four-year completion rate of 66.2%, a five-year completion rate of 83.5% and a six-year completion rate of 85.7%, according to the OIR.

For the 2012-entering class, UGA had higher four and five-year completion rates than Georgia Tech’s 40% and 82%, respectively. Tech’s six-year completion rate in 2012 was 87%, slightly higher than UGA’s. The University of Florida had a four-year graduation rate of 68%, a five-year graduation rate of 87% and a six-year graduation rate of 90%, all higher than UGA’s 2012 entering class.

UGA’s four-year graduation rate has increased since 2011 but remains in the 60% range. One of the reasons students take longer than four years to graduate is the rising cost of a college education, according to Peter Stokes, managing director of Huron Consulting Group, a management consultancy company that partners with companies in healthcare, higher education and other commercial industries.

It was common for public institutions to have 80% of its budget covered through state appropriations 30 or 40 years ago, Stokes said. Today, the national average is closer to 20%, and state subsidies cover less than 10% of the operations at some public institutions, Stokes said.

As a result, many students are forced to take out loans or work to cover the “increasing private burden for the cost of education,” according to Stokes.

“Work can get in the way of completing on time as well and can sometimes require students to [drop] out,” Stokes said.

Stokes said that students picking up multiple majors and minors also increases the time needed to satisfy graduation requirements. College readiness and personal issues that require students to take time off of school can also play a role in the time it takes to graduate.

However, four-year graduation rates are actually on the rise, partly due to a change in the culture surrounding completion rates at colleges nationwide, according to Stokes.

In the past, “the orientation at many institutions was to function as a weeding out process,” Stokes said.

“If 100 students started and 56 graduated, that was considering doing your job, because not everybody was qualified to complete a bachelor’s degree,” said Stokes.“Over the last two decades or so, that’s changed. Schools have an obligation to help those students advance, to persist to complete their degrees and ideally to complete them on time.”

Universities use multiple methods to help students graduate in fewer years. According to Stokes, one of the most important strategies is data analytics, which provides “some predictive visibility” into student populations considered “more vulnerable” from a progress-to-completion perspective.

“Students with a certain economic profile, with a certain academic profile, [or] a certain mental health profile may be more or less well-prepared to proceed at a certain pace to complete their degree,” Stokes said.

Stokes said that technology makes it possible to personalize the academic careers of students, helping those from populations that have a lower chance of graduating on time. Data such as class attendance, late work and drops in grades can be used to flag students so their institution can reach out and help them back on track.

There are also “human intervention” strategies colleges use to help students along their path to graduation. In recent years there has been an increased emphasis on career path planning resources, exploratory first-year programs and academic help services, according to Stokes.

Career planning services help students consider where they want to go with their degrees from an early stage in college. First-year programs revolving around academics are also becoming increasingly common. UGA offers academic success courses focusing on topics such as learning and study strategies. These courses are available for all students, but many are focused on freshmen, who are advised to take them during their first semester at UGA.

“We also see greater investment in tutoring services or student advising services, sometimes from faculty, and sometimes from professional advisors,” said Stokes. “Institutions in Georgia have been celebrated for some of their efforts in these areas.”

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