When the 2015 AMS Academic Survey Report claimed that 60 per cent of UBC students in four year programs take longer than that to graduate, many were not surprised. In truth, previous data shows that the trend has existed for some time.
“There has been no real increase in degree completion time since 2003,” said UBC Associate Vice-President of Enrolment Services and Registrar Kate Ross. “The increase in degree completion time is statistically not very large. It’s not like all students are taking an extra year to complete … this is not a trend anticipated to move significantly either up or down.”
Records from Enrolment Services show that the average degree completion time rose from 4.1 years in the 1980s to 4.5 years by 1991. The data remained basically the same until 2003 when it increased to 4.7 years.
Students in Applied Science and Food and Nutrition take the longest to graduate. Some of the programs in both faculties, as well as the Bachelor of Science in Wood Products Processing, have a fifth year built in.
Of the 60 per cent of all students who were going to take 4.5 to 6.5 years to graduate, 56 per cent cited “other experiences” as the reason for their extended time at UBC. According to AMS VP Academic Jenna Omassi, this means that students became involved with something.
For example, a co-op placement may further lengthen students’ degree completion, as is the case for second-year engineering physics student Tim Branch.
“[Co-op students] take eight or even 12 month consecutive terms because employers prefer those to just four month summer terms," said Branch. "As a result, these students may take up to an additional year to graduate due to the fact that some required courses are only held in one term or the other.”
Despite being held back for an extra year, many students are eager to partake in co-op and other co-curricular activities to better prepare themselves for future employment.
“It comes down to the fact that a degree on its own is no longer adequate,” says Mackenzie Lockhart, a fifth-year psychology and political science student. “To get a job you need to be an AMS President, have founded two and a half start-ups, have an honours degree and have experience in their field. The time demands from all of this just mean students end up taking five years.”
Craig Riddell, Royal Bank Faculty Research Professor in the Vancouver School of Economics, recognizes an upward trend for students combining school and work, which “makes it harder to carry a full course load [but is] rational if one wants to avoid graduating with substantial debt.”
31 per cent of respondents said their victory lap was due to taking a “reduced course load for personal reasons.” This was followed by 28 per cent of respondents saying that they are “not in a hurry to graduate.”
Overall increase in university enrolment has led to a more diverse student demographics, according to University of Waterloo Economics Professor Ana Ferrer.
“Thanks to student loans and broader admission policies, more students have the chance to go to university,” said Ferrer. She indicates that international students may face additional challenges like language barriers that extend their graduation.
Ferrer adds, “It is possible that the fraction of students that may not be quite sure about what they want has increased. Students may not know their own capabilities and options and as they explore these it may take longer than the 4-year time line outline in most programs.”
There are different interpretations of what the economic impact of this trend will be.
Ferrer explains that since the pattern has existed for some time, it will have little effect on the economy as a whole, saying that “it is not uncommon that workers move between schooling and work along their careers. That some students take longer to complete their degrees will not impact the economy.”
Riddell on the other hand, states that the phenomenon will reduce the economic return to higher education.
“Education is an investment -- one gives up potential income today in order to go to school and earn more in the future, as those with higher education earn more on average," said Riddell. "If you take longer to graduate, you increase the costs of education because you are out of the full time labour market longer and reduce the benefits, because you enter the labour market later.”
In other words, an 18 year old has two choices – either to start working right away or go to university.