A new Public Agenda report, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” (PDF), reports the results of a study on why U.S. college students don’t finish college. This is no academic question; less than half of students who begin a 4-year degree program complete it within 6 years. The problem, most of the time, is not merely that college is too hard, but that life is too hard.
A full-time college schedule typically requires about 70 hours a week — 14 hours of classes and four times that for study, commuting, paperwork, etc. Yet the average college student also has a job and works 20 hours a week. If the combination of work and school is 90 hours a week, that is an average of 13 hours a day, leaving very little slack in the schedule so that the student can recover and catch up if any little thing goes wrong. Maybe half of college students who have jobs also have some family responsibilities, such as children to take care of. Some of these students actually find a way a graduate, but that’s one of those accomplishments that falls into the I-don’t-know-how-they-did-it territory.
There has been a lot of attention on the high cost of college in recent years, and I have focused particularly on the high cost of textbooks, many of which now cost over $200. And the high cost is keeping many students out of school. But the top reason students can’t finish college is the time pressure. If you have to work to support yourself, how are you supposed to find an extra 10 hours a day to keep up with classes?
It is clear from this study that the structure of college is an obstacle for most students. Part of what is needed is more flexibility in class schedules, but it is important to remember that this does not simply mean more evening and weekend classes. Less than half of U.S. workers now work the traditional weekday daytime work schedule or an approximation of it. No matter how you might fix a class schedule, it will still be inconvenient for a significant fraction of potential students who work. Students need actual flexibility, and most colleges probably can’t imagine what that would look like.
Another change that is needed is a greater institutional acceptance for part-time students. Studying 70 hours a week may be impractical for most people who have to work, but 47 hours may be a much more realistic approach for many. That leads to a college degree in six years, rather than the traditional four, but that is a lot better than not getting a degree at all, which is what is happening now for nearly half of all college students.