"You know, a lot of people go to college for seven years," declares Tommy, the hapless perpetual undergraduate, upon the completion of his hard-fought bachelor's degree.
"I know," replies his snarky friend. "They're called doctors."
That exchange, from the Chris Farley comedy Tommy Boy, served the purpose of establishing the main character as a major slacker and all-around screwup. Tommy Boy, however, came out in 1995; fast forward 16 years, and suddenly Tommy seems more like a parody of the average American college student.
For college students today, the four-year degree is largely turning into a myth -- the provenance of stellar overachievers and Advanced Placement all-stars rather than a realistic goal for the average student. On average, public and private schools are graduating just 37 percent of college students within four years, according to the most recent data from the American Enterprise Institute.What's more, the AEI also found that so-called "four-year" colleges graduated an average of only 53 percent of students (entering since 2001) within six years, and wrote that schools with six-year graduation rates "below 50 percent, 40 percent and even 30 percent are distressingly easy to find." Public schools have slackened, especially in the pace of education: The four-year graduation rate at public institutions currently hovers at 32% -- 22% lower than the rate at private institutions, according to the most recent data.
Still, a few bright spots remain in the sea of lagging degree-seekers. A recent report at CBS's MoneyWatch.com compiled a list of the 25 public colleges and universities with the best on-time graduation rates, and found that the top schools on the list still graduate more than 80 percent of students within four years. Not surprisingly, service academies of the armed forces dominated many of the highest spots on the list -- but a little more surprising was the fact that they shared the top spots almost exclusively with schools from Virginia.
Although the United States Naval Academy boasted the best four-year graduation rate at 86 percent of students, the University of Virginia (pictured above) and the College of William and Mary followed just behind, with on-time graduation rates of 85% and 82%, respectively. Two other Virginia schools -- the University of Mary Washington and James Madison University -- also carved out spots in the top 10, with rates of 70% and 68%, respectively.
In all, besides the service academies, only two schools not located in Virginia cracked the top 10: the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
So what's Virginia putting in the water, so to speak? According to Provost Jay Harper of the University of Mary Washington, the answer probably has to do with the tight-knit sense of competition between Virginia schools, and the reputation for academic rigor that the state's best public colleges boast throughout the region.
"The schools here in Virginia are very competitive with each other," Harper said. "When we institute a new program or service for our students, the other schools soon emulate. Most of the out-of-state students who study in Virginia are the better-prepared-for-college-level-work types, and the weaker-prepared students don't usually apply, probably because of the reputation of Virginia schools."
Harper said that hands-on academic advisement and the online self-service degree audit system at Mary Washington enable students to keep a close watch on the progress of their degree program. Finally, he noted that academic advisors at the school often stay in touch with students who drop out or take time off, which helps to improve the university's graduation rate in the long term.
"Students typically don't want to spend five and six years to complete a degree," Harper said. "Most who do are the victims of life circumstances. Financial or family problems intervene and require students to 'stop out' and return at a later date to complete their courses. Trying to stay in contact with these students when they leave and reminding them of what is left to reach their goal is important."
Provost Michael Halleran, at the College of William and Mary, explained his school's four-year graduation rate of 82% by echoing Harper's sentiments about the competitiveness of universities in Virginia. He also noted that the smaller scale of many of those schools helps to make students feel like they have a support network to help them through their college plan.
"The human scale of [William and Mary's] campus and warm community combine to promote a very high graduation rate," he said. "[In Virginia], it helps to have a number of excellent universities in the state, and a history of letting those universities develop distinctive characteristics."
Although the exact cost of extending college by a year or two varies wildly from student to student and college to college, most college graduates know from experience that it isn't chump change. Higher education author Donald Asher recently used U.S. Census Bureau data about the earnings of college graduates to estimate the income that students lose when they delay graduation by a year. He came up with an average loss of $23,168 per student, per year -- and that's without even including the extra tuition and fees that the student inevitably will pay.
University of Mary Washington senior Heather Brady, an English major, estimated that when she completes her degree in four years this May, she'll save between $15,000 and $30,000 in college costs by not spending a fifth year at school. Despite juggling extracurricular commitments, including a position as managing editor of the UMW school newspaper, she said that she forged close relationships with professors and academic advisers early in her college career, which, along with a few Advanced Placement credits from high school, helped her to stay on track with her four-year plan.
"At smaller schools [like Mary Washington], help is readily available if you're struggling," Brady said. "If you see a professor walking on campus, they're more than willing to stop on campus and answer your questions or help you out. It makes for a really nice balance between having fun and working hard."
Four-Year Degree Still Lives -- in Virginia