The classic path to college completion is enshrined in our culture: Arrive as wide-eyed freshmen and emerge four years later as self-assured graduates. This experience, however, is increasingly uncommon among American students, of whom only 40 percent will achieve a degree in four years or less. Extended graduation tracks can prove expensive, contributing to the nearly $1.5 trillion in student loans currently owed by borrowers across the country. Whether they transfer, change majors or put school on pause to work a little more, students are often surprised by how much an extra year of school can cost them.

Seeking accountability for educational costs and outcomes, lawmakers established the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to track how long it typically takes students to complete their degrees at a given college and how much it usually costs them. In this project, we’ve analyzed IPEDS data from all four-year public and private colleges with 2,000 or more students. Our results reveal which schools have the best records for producing timely graduates and which see students struggle to finish, incurring high tuition bills along the way.

Key Takeaways

Graduating in five years instead of four can cost a student between $29,000 (for in-state public tuition) and $52,000 a year (for private tuition) in principal and interest over the life of a typical student loan. Out of state students at public schools pay more than $13,000 more than in-staters.

10.2% of private school undergraduates take a fifth year to graduate, as compared to 16.3% of public school students.

Schools with 30,000-40,000 students have the highest rates of 5th year seniors, with 20.6% of students taking a 5th year to graduate. Schools with 2,000-5,000 students have an average of 10.6% of students graduating in the 5th year.

Wyoming (23%), North Dakota (20%), Wisconsin (20%), and California (19%) schools have the highest rates of 5th year students still seeking undergraduate degrees.

New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington D.C. have the lowest averages for 5th year seniors, with only 7%, 9%, and 9%, respectively.

Military schools have among the lowest percentage of 5th year graduates, with the U.S. Naval Academy (0%), U.S. Air Force Academy (1%) and U.S. Military Academy (2%) in the bottom 20 of all schools.


Among private nonprofit and public colleges alike, we found some schools in which a fifth year was quite common. Many such extended study tracks entail intentional decisions on the part of students, though to minimize 5-year schools on our list, we looked at only colleges that graduated more than 40% of students within 4 years, and omitted technical schools from our list, which commonly offer extended programs in special colleges within a university. We found that all but one of the schools in the top 10 were public schools, including two from the University of California’s UC System.

Among those with the lowest rates of extra-year graduates, private colleges dominated our ranking. Indeed, the only public schools to make our list were military academies (the Naval Academy, Air Force and West Point).


A broader view of fifth-year students at private and public colleges confirms what our rankings suggest: Public university students are more likely to require an extra year to graduate, with 16.3% of students graduating in an extra year, as compared to 10.2% for private schools. One explanation for this disparity may lie in the typical size of each type of institution. Public schools enroll more students, and our findings show a strong correlation between school size and an additional year of study. Indeed, schools with 30,001 to 40,000 students saw roughly twice as many students (20.6%)take five years to graduate as did schools with 2,000 to 5,000 students (10.6%) enrolled.

The lone outlier to this trend was our largest institutions: Colleges with more than 40,000 students actually saw a smaller portion of fifth-year graduates. This may be due, in part, to big flagship state universities with strong academic reputations, such as the University of Florida or the University of Texas at Austin. UT-Austin has placed great emphasis on timely graduation in recent years, with the latest data suggesting success.


The last few decades have seen tuition prices soar at public and private universities alike, raising the financial stakes of an extra year significantly. Indeed, no matter which institution you attend, an extra year anywhere can translate to tens of thousands in added costs. Average tuition costs ranged from over $40,000 per year (for private colleges) to $22,633 (for public school in-state tuition. When you magnify that initial price by the interest entailed in a student loan, it’s clear a single year of college could require several years of payments.

The vast cost differences between private and public institutions are hard to ignore, though: Six years at an in-state public school is still more than $30,000 less the four years at a private school. Often, high costs can cause students to delay graduation to work, a vicious cycle that can end up costing them in the long run. While student loans may seem intimidating, they could be the more prudent financial move if they allow students to graduate in a timely manner.


When we consider the schools in each state most likely to produce fifth-year graduates, public universities represent the vast majority, in keeping with our earlier results. However, this distinction may not be cause for concern in many cases. The Stevens Institute of Technology, for instance, offers a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program, as does Purdue University.

Additionally, many of these schools possess an emphasis on STEM subjects, which may prove harder to complete within four years than humanities degrees. In recognition of these challenges, the National Science Foundation has sought to improve rates of timely graduation among students of the sciences, including a five-year grant program initiated for some Florida colleges in 2016. The University of Central Florida, which currently sees nearly a quarter of students take five years to get a degree, is one of the recipients.


High rates of fifth-year graduates seem concentrated in the West and Midwest regions, with approximately 1 in 5 graduates taking five years in Wyoming, North Dakota, Wisconsin and California. This trend is surprising in light of how highly these states ranked on the U.S. News & World Report list of best states for higher education: California, Wyoming and North Dakota were all among the top 10. However, that ranking also accounted for two-year programs and costs in addition to graduation rates.

By contrast, the Northeast saw relatively low rates of fifth-year graduates, with fewer than 1 in 10 graduates taking five years in states such as New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut. This region is also home to a high concentration of well-regarded private universities, which may account, in part, for these states’ superior numbers.


While graduating within four years is an admirable ideal, those who earn a degree over a longer period have equal reason to take pride in their achievement. Regardless of cost or time frame, a college education offers innumerable benefits, including significantly higher salary prospects in time. Perhaps the number of students graduating in five or more years has some encouraging implications: That those who might have assumed a college education would be impossible are now working to find a way.

If you need help making your college dreams a reality, LendingTree is here to help. Student loans can be a powerful investment in your future, but navigating the application process can be difficult. We’ll show you how to compare loans to find the terms and rates that work best for you and connect you with lenders you can trust. This means you can be confident you made the right call, whichever path you take to your degree.


To compile this study, we used IPEDS data for all private not-for-profit and public undergraduate universities in the U.S. with at least 2,000 enrolled students. All figures were accessed from IPEDS in August 2017. Schools that exclusively have five-year undergraduate programs  were not included, such as Northeastern University, which features a five-year degree program. All graphics contain information for all other schools, with the exception of the top overall rankings, which omitted any schools with less than 40% of 4-year graduates. To calculate the figures in the graphic entitled “Projecting Postsecondary Prices,” we used a resource from The New York Times to determine interest owed.


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