The notion of a "four-year" college education is getting about as outdated as freshmen wearing beanies on the quad.
Only 15 percent of students at colleges and universities graduate within the traditional four-year time span, according to a recent study by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Fewer than half of freshmen entering four-year colleges and universities these days obtained a bachelor's degree after six years, the study found. Black and Hispanic student success rates were considerably lower.
The trend has focused new attention on graduation rates and prompted much-publicized comparisons of the figures, which vary widely among campuses.
All the attention on the rates has educators nervous. Most aren't bothered about how long it take students to obtain their degrees. But they are concerned about the number who drop out and are taking steps to help students stay.
Students remain longer in school for a variety of reasons. The biggest change is the demographic shift on campuses. More students than ever are older, hold down jobs and have families. These so-called non-traditional students have other responsibilities competing for their attention, so they can't take a full load of classes.
Because of higher tuition costs, even students in the 18-to-24 age group are more likely to work.
Many of them take a semester or year or more off to earn money, then re-enroll. That phenomenon has become so common that educators have developed a new term for it: stopping out.
Experts cite other factors as well. One is delayed graduations because of difficulty enrolling in crowded classes or a desire to develop another talent, such as computer skills. Another is an increasing tendency for students to change majors.
Controversy over college athlete dropouts prompted Congress to adopt a law last fall requiring all campuses receiving federal funds to disclose graduation rates to prospective students and their parents. Under that law, campuses in 1993 must begin publishing the rates for athletes and all other degree-seeking undergraduates.
Experts warn that the figures have little meaning in comparing most institutions, with the exception of those very similar in the nature of their student body, academic programs and locale.
Private colleges and those with more affluent students tend to graduate a higher percentage of students. Private schools may try harder to nurture students. Those with more selective admissions policies, picking applicants who are better prepared, also have higher graduation rates.
Campuses with mostly residential students usually have a more traditional enrollment, and higher graduation rates.
Public institutions in big cities serving large numbers of commuter, part-time or minority students tend to have lower rates. Larger, more impersonal campuses, where students tend to feel like a number, may have more dropouts.
A number of students transfer to other campuses, often because they aren't satisfied with their schools. And some students choose a lower-cost campus for their first two years and then transfer to pursue a particular course of study.
Education officials are trying to determine what factors influence student retention and how many students transfer elsewhere.
"We put in place a new process to inform high schools about how many of their students graduate at a particular university," said Ross Hodl, spokesman for the Illinois Board of Higher Education. The idea is to help inform the high schools if their students were well-prepared.
One college official warned against putting too much emphasis on graduation rates.
"My fear is we're about to do the same thing we did with SAT scores, using them as a sole measure of achievement" said Bruce Mallette, North Carolina State University's assistant director of institutional research. "Graduation rates are just one indicator.