On-time graduation and student debt

Issues:   One way to limit college costs for some students is to implement policies that enable students to graduate on time or even early.  This post discusses issues and presents data related to on-time graduation from college and costs incurred by delaying graduation.

The Department of Education College Score Card web site provides statistics on the percent of people at four-year undergraduate institutions that graduate within six years of first enrolling in a school after high school.  However, there is a big difference in potential debt accumulation and lost earning for a person who graduates on-time or earlier and a person who graduates two years after the expected graduation rate.

The analysis presented here provides some insight on the impact of the number of years it takes to finish undergraduate programs on debt levels at graduation?

The Department of Education Web Site providing information on different colleges stresses median federal guaranteed debt at graduation.   Less information is available on PLUS loans for parents and for private loans.

The analysis presented here provides information on whether colleges need to provide more information on other types of loans and on how these loan total vary with the number of years in school.

The increase in the number of students taking Advanced Placement Exams has allowed some students to graduate with a BA or BS Degree in three rather than in four years.   However, in response to an increase in the number of students taking AP exams many schools have scaled back or are reconsidering the amount of credit that students get from AP exams.

The analysis presented here provides some information on the costs associated with colleges impeding early graduation.

The Data:

The statistics presented here were generated from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study NPSAS 2012 database from the Department of Education.

The logical variable to look at with the analysis of this issue is cumulative amount borrowed, which is called BORAMT1.  However, the NPSAS documentation reveals this variable does not include information on PLUS loans for parents and may also omit some information on private loans.

I present statistics on cumulative debt and cumulative PLUS loans for parents for people who graduated in 2012 with a BA or BS degree.     Statistics on the cumulative amount borrowed variable are presented for private non-profit colleges and for public institutions.

Cumulative Debt Results:

Below is a table presenting information on cumulative amount borrowed for graduates in 2012 based on when their undergraduate career began

Duration of Undergraduate Career and Cumulative Debt at Graduation
# of years from initial enrollment and graduation Public Universities Private Non- Profit


% With Debt Average Cumulative Debt for Borrowers % With Debt Average Cumulative Debt for Borrowers
3 50.5 $19,625 68.5 $27,822
4 56.9 $22,504 70.0 $29,123
5 67.0 $25,537 80.2 $34,683
6 72.4 $27,163 72.0 $29,069
7 71.1 $27,707 64.2 NA
>7 69.3 $30,043 79.5 $39,102
Total 64.1 $25,640 73.5 $32,308

Observation on cumulative debt and duration of undergraduate career.

The results presented here indicate that people who finish their undergraduate careers efficiently have less debt on average.

The increase in debt with years in school exists for increases from 3 years to 4 years and for increases from 4 to 5 for both private and public schools.

The increase in debt with years in school exists for increases from 5 to 6 years for public universities but not for private universities.

These figures don’t include PLUS loans for parents.  I proceed to look at the relationship between usage for PLUS loans for parents and duration of undergraduate career.   The PLUS loan analysis looks at all undergraduate institutions together – public universities, private non-profit universities and private for-profit universities.   I combine the three types of universities because of sample size constraints impacting the PLUS loan usage variable.

PLUS loan for Parents Results:

Duration of Undergraduate Career and PLUS loan for Parents Usage
# of Years from Initial Enrollment to Graduation % with Plus Loans for Parents Average PLUS Loan for PLUS Loan Borrower
3 12.0 $33,770
4 18.5 $30,218
5 21.2 $31,463
6 18.4 $22,120
7 14.4 $18,199
>7 5.9 $16,345
Total 15.5 $27,352

Sample includes public universities, private non-profit universities and private for-profit universities.

Observations on PLUS loan for parent usage and duration of undergraduate career:

The percent of people who rely on PLUS loans by parents is dramatically lower for people who graduate in three years compared to people who graduated in four or more years.

However, the average cumulative PLUS loan for people graduating in three years is a bit higher than for people who took longer to graduate.  (I suspect the average for three years was driven by a few outliers.

Policy Discussion:

It is apparent that the amount of time it takes for a student to finish their undergraduate career is an important determinant of debt at time of graduation.

Policies that help students finish on time can greatly reduce financial debt incurred in college.

Detailed information about the frequency distribution on the number of years it takes for students to get their degree at each college would be invaluable for students and their parents.   The College Score Card reveals information on the percent of students who graduate in six or fewer years.  This statistic is inadequate.   The Department of Education should require that schools report 3-year, four-year, five-year six-year and > 6-year graduation rates.

Statistics based exclusively on federal guaranteed debt, like the ones presented in College Score Card are inadequate.   Cumulative PLUS loans and cumulative private loans also contribute to financial risk associated with taking on too much debt in college.   Several articles have revealed that many parents who take out PLUS loans on behalf of their children are incapable of repaying these loans and there has been an increase in the number of instances where PLUS loan borrowers have had Social Security payments garnished.  One of my previous posts on this topic revealed that the proportion of PLUS loan parents with low income levels has increased over time.

The Department of Education should insist that colleges report detailed information on the usage of PLUS loans and private loans by their students.

Many colleges are now deliberately making it much more difficult for students to graduate in three years by denying college credit for AP exams.

Article on AP credits being denied to students at major colleges:


The results presented here indicate that there are potentially large financial costs incurred by colleges choosing to deny credits for AP exams.    Some states have enacted laws requiring that publicly funded colleges provide credits to student who pass AP exam.

I believe all colleges should be required to provide detailed information on AP credit awards and information on frequency distribution describing years it takes for student to graduate.  it would be inappropriate for the state to mandate AP credit policies at private institutions.  However, the state does have an interest in insuring that markets run efficiently and market efficiency is impossible when consumers lack basic information.

Academically trained economists generally support providing consumers with better information unless they are being paid to advocate for special interest.   You would expect that university presidents might place a higher priority on the public’s right to know than other industries.   Interestingly, as demonstrated in the post below college presidents have successfully stopped meaningful college ratings

Ranking Colleges on Value and Costs:


On this issue colleges are behaving like tobacco firms and insurance companies.


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