Delayed Time-to-Degree and Post-College Earnings

Dirk Witteveen and Paul Attewell. Journal of Research in Higher Education. Published online 26 October 2019.


Increasingly, undergraduates take more than 4 years to complete a baccalaureate, a situation widely perceived as a waste of time and money, for students, their families, and taxpayers. We first identify several phenomena that result in a longer time to degree and document the frequency of such delays. Then, using nationally representative data from the Baccalaureate & Beyond 1993–2003 surveys, we estimate the relationship between delayed time-to-degree and later employment and postcollege earnings, using negative binomial hurdle models. We find that delayed time-to-degree is not related to employment chances but is associated with lower post-college earnings: averaging 8–15%, depending on the length of delay. This average disadvantage is in line with signaling theory. The unique contribution of this study is its thorough analysis of different types of delay, as caused by stopping out and employment. Contrary to the popular assumption that delay is a waste of college resources or a student’s time, we find that delayed graduation in combination with working full-time during college has no negative relationship to post-college earnings. We discuss the time-investment trade-offs and the implications for the applicability of human capital theory to college graduation delays.

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