Students who enroll in a college or university have a goal. And for most, that goal is to earn a degree or certificate in a particular field. 

But too often, even the most well-intentioned students encounter challenges. While the National Student Clearinghouse reports that the national six-year college completion rate is on the rise at 62.2%, many students are still taking too much time to complete their degree or are not completing it at all. Couple that with the fact that completing an associate’s degree in three years (not two) and a bachelor’s degree in six years (not four) is the new normal, and it’s clear that something needs to change.

So what’s causing the hold-up? It’s a good question, and one we gained insight into in our inaugural survey, Barriers to On-Time Completion. This primary research survey, fielded in Summer 2022, questioned more than 2,000 current college students and recent college graduates of varying ages across the nation to uncover what roadblocks they faced on their way to earning a degree.* Here’s what they had to report.

The Findings

To start, we took a pulse on how current students are feeling about their ability to graduate on time. For the purposes of the survey, we defined on time as three years for a 2-year institution and six years for a 4-year institution, as this is the way national organizations such as National Student Clearinghouse currently define on time.

Of the 1,000+ current students we surveyed, 27% said that they are not sure that they will graduate on time.

The response from recent college graduates supports this point, with 28% of them reporting that they did not graduate on time. 

The survey revealed three factors that were driving concerns about on-time graduation for current students. These same three factors contributed to delayed completion in recent graduates:

  • Course Availability
  • Transfer
  • Degree Pathway

Course Availability

Ensuring students have access to the courses they need, when they need them, is critical to staying on track to completion. Waitlists, limited numbers of specific courses, insufficient schedule options, and insufficient course sections or seats are common issues students face. 

57% of current students and 48% of recent graduates reported being waitlisted and unable to take at least one class they needed to graduate on time.

Many students simply wait it out, choosing to take the course a different semester or crossing their fingers that someone will drop the class and open up a spot. Others take electives, which may not count toward their degree requirements, to fill the gap in their schedule. Still others take a different approach, looking outside of their home institution’s walls to fulfill a degree requirement. 

41% of current students took a class at another institution because it wasn’t available at their home institution, while 27% of recent graduates did the same.

Taking courses outside of their home institution can be an effective way for students to fill the gaps when they are on a waitlist or unable to secure a spot in a course they need, but there are also challenges with this approach. More on that in a minute. 

What’s even more surprising?

22% of recent grads actually changed their major and/or minor because they couldn’t get into the classes they needed to stay on track and complete their degree.


Transfer

Many students transfer from one institution to another during the course of their academic journey, and there are many different ways a student can transfer. Some move laterally, changing from one 2-year or 4-year institution to another. Others transfer vertically, moving from a 2-year to a 4-year institution. Still others reverse transfer from a 4-year back to a community college, enabling them to secure an associate’s degree.

Of the population of students surveyed, 55% of current students transferred while 46% of recent graduates did the same. And when we asked them about their experience, the consensus was the same: it needs improvement.

Over 60% of current students who transferred rated their transfer experience as moderately to extremely complicated. Recent college grads agreed, with 55% saying their experience was moderately to extremely complicated as well. 

Challenges with the transfer process are well known and well documented. And clearly many institutions are struggling with how to make the process easier and less complex. But perhaps the biggest challenge with transfer is the loss of credits that transfer students experience. 

Data from 2004 to 2009 shows students during that time lost an average of 43% of their credits – nearly a full semester’s worth of time and money. Students who transferred from one public institution to another public institution fared a bit better – they “only” lost 37% of their credits. But students who transferred from private for-profit schools to public ones lost over 90% of their credits.

Our data supports these points.

33% of current students and 25% of recent grads who transferred reported that they lost at least half of their credits.

That’s a lot of time, money, and effort to expend with little to show as a result. And this challenge of lost credits plagues those students we mentioned earlier – the ones who take a single course at another institution simply to fulfill a requirement that wasn’t available at their home institution.

So it’s not a surprise that, when asked, recent grads said the #1 thing they would change: make the transfer process smoother and easier.


Degree Pathway

Having a clearly-defined degree plan makes staying on track easier. Not only do students know which classes they need to take, but they also have a plan for when they should take them in order to complete their degree on time.

But to quote poet Robert Burns, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” Said differently, the best laid plans often go awry. It’s inevitable that students will encounter barriers related to course availability and/or transfer, but when they have a degree pathway in place, students can evaluate where they can change course and still complete on time. 

The bigger challenges come when a degree plan doesn’t even exist.

26% of both current students and recent graduates admitted that they did not have a mapped out plan by the start of their fourth year.

When students don’t have a plan it’s no wonder they fall off track!


The Path Forward

To help students overcome the barriers related to on-time completion, many institutions are exploring innovative strategies, including course sharing, improved transfer articulation management, and student-facing degree pathways. These strategies not only help students understand which courses count toward their degree, but also if those courses count in the way they want, or expect, them to.

Course sharing is a strategy where two or more institutions collaborate to make their courses available to each other’s students to count for credit at their home institution. Course sharing can occur among public systems, consortia, and even individual schools that opt in to a network of shared courses. 

Course sharing boosts academic opportunity by providing increased equity and expanded access to courses beyond a student’s home institution. As a result, students can secure the courses they need and know they count, enabling them to achieve their academic goals by graduating on time. 

Improving transfer processes requires both better articulation management to keep equivalencies up to date and better access for students and counselors to understand not just which courses students can take, but how those courses count towards a degree. Providing this information before a student takes a class reduces the risk—and expense—of lost credits when a student transfers institutions. 

A common challenge with shared and transferred courses is understanding how they fit into a student’s degree pathway. By providing students with the ability to plan and monitor progress toward degree completion not only helps ensure they can graduate on time, but also gives them more voice and choice in how they achieve their academic goals. 

Ultimately, there are many reasons why students fall off track on their road to degree completion, and not all of those reasons are ones institutions can fix. But when it comes to course availability, transfer, and degree pathways, we believe that technology can support innovative and collaborative ways for colleges and universities to boost on-time completion rates and overall student success.

* Quottly’s survey of student pain points was conducted through SurveyMonkey with a sample of 2,029 individuals 18 years of age and older (1,004 current college students and 1,025 recent graduates) from June 13-14, 2022.

About the Author

Quottly

Quottly is the largest and most comprehensive course and program sharing platform in higher education, helping institutions accelerate and boost student pathways toward degree completion.