Report: Half of students take four years to earn an associate degree

July 1, 2014

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**Updated July 2 with additional information. Half of the state’s community college students take four years or longer to earn an associate degree that’s designed to take half that time, according to a new report.

“The real college affordability crisis is the time it takes to earn a degree,” said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity, which released the report Tuesday.

The report said that the median time to an associate degree was 4.1 years. The report looked at 64,000 students who earned associate degrees in 2012-13. Students who transferred to four-year universities and those who completed certificates or other programs were not evaluated.

The California Community College Chancellor’s Office disputed the report’s numbers, however, saying researchers excluded an additional 16,000 students who earned associate degrees that year, “calling into question the validity of the findings,” according to a statement from Vice Chancellor Patrick Perry.

Any valid evaluation would count – and analyze – all 80,472 associate degree earners as the successes that they are,” Perry said. 

Siqueiros responded that researchers focused only on students who were receiving one associate degree, so the 16,000 students who received a second associate degree or a certificate in 2012-13 were not included.

“We acknowledge that our system can always do better at helping our students reach their educational goals,” California Community Colleges spokeswoman Paige Marlatt Dorr said in an email. “With that said, the vast majority of our students are enrolled part-time due to work schedules, family commitments and military service.  If it takes a part-time student on average a little more than four years to earn an associate degree, the added time can be attributed to them carrying fewer units than full-time students each semester.”

Students took far more course units than were required for graduation, the report said. Students took about 78 credits on their path to an associate degree, which is designed to require 60 course units. A typical course is between three and five units.

“Since approximately 90 percent of California’s community college students take fewer than 15 credits per semester, it is not surprising that students take longer than two years to complete an associate degree,” report said.

Each additional year cost students about $7,600 in fees, books and other expenses.

Factors driving up time to degree include budget cuts that restricted course offerings, requiring students to wait longer for the classes they need, as well as the large number of students who enter college campuses requiring remedial courses. Students who needed remedial courses took more than one year longer and 20 more credits to complete degrees than students who enrolled directly into college-level courses, the report said.

The report offers a number of recommendations for curbing time to degree, including moving students through remedial courses faster, increasing state funding so colleges can serve and graduate more students, and requiring campuses to counsel students so they are taking the courses they need to obtain a degree.

The report, called “The Real Cost of College: Time and Credits to Degree,” is the latest in a series of papers on college affordability released by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

A companion report, also released Tuesday, said that California State University students face similar time delays in obtaining degrees: The median time to a bachelor’s degree at CSU is 4.7 years.

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