Students today "take more years to get through" college.

Newt Gingrich on Saturday, January 28th, 2012 in comments at a campaign event

Mostly False

Newt Gingrich says students today 'take more years to get through' college

With his wife Callista by his side, Newt Gingrich speaks during a rally at the River of Tampa Bay church in Brandon on Jan. 23, 2012. We checked a comment he made a few days later in Stuart, Fla., about trends in students completing college degrees.

Newt Gingrich says too many college students are slackers.

During a campaign event in Stuart, Fla., on Jan. 28, 2012, Newt Gingrich said college students are taking too long to graduate.

"Students take fewer classes per semester. They take more years to get through. Why? Because they have free money," Gingrich said. "I would tell students: ‘Get through as quick as you can. Borrow as little as you can. Have a part-time job.’ But that’s very different from the culture that has grown up in the last 20 years."

We wondered whether the statistics showed that students are indeed taking longer to graduate than they did in the past. So we looked into it.

We turned to figures on post-secondary education compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education. As it turns out, the trend for four-year colleges is exactly the opposite.

Percent of bachelor’s degree-seeking students completing bachelor's degrees within four years after start, at all four-year institutions

Students starting college in ... Percent graduating in four years
1996 33.7
1997 34.1
1998 34.5
1999 35.3
2000 36.1
2001 36.2
2002 39.3

So the percentage of students completing degrees within four years has actually risen incrementally in recent years. Between the graduating classes of 2000 and 2006, the percentage of students graduating in four years increased by one-sixth.

So where four-year colleges are concerned, Gingrich’s comment is off the mark. But Gingrich has a point in regard to two-year institutions.

Percent completing certificates or associate's degrees within 150 percent of normal time, all two-year institutions     

Students starting college in ... Percent who graduated in three years
1999 29.3
2000 30.5
2001 30.0
2002 29.3
2003 29.1
2004 27.8
2005 27.5

So for two-year institutions, the rate did fall slightly, though by less than what the rate for four-year institutions rose.

Christopher Swanson, the vice president for research and development at Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, said that in general, education experts haven’t been worried so much that the trendlines for college completion are going in the wrong direction. "The main narrative you hear about (concerns) the low completion rates in general," he said. On that score, he said, "there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to write home about."

Swanson did take issue with the general tenor of Gingrich’s comments -- that you should borrow as little as you can and instead get a job if you want to increase the likelihood that you’ll finish college on time.

"That seems to fly in the face of what I think is a pretty well-established finding from the research that working during college or post-secondary education tends to be detrimental in terms of completion (that is, that you’re less likely to complete) and time to completion (that it takes longer)," Swanson said. "There may be any number of issues and problems with excessive student borrowing, but being able to borrow for college does allow students the opportunity to focus more exclusively on their school work than would probably have been the case otherwise. If you follow the don’t borrow/get a job argument and play that out a bit, that sounds a lot like what happens as a matter of course in community colleges. And the completion rates there are extremely low, on the order of one-third completing within an extended timeline."

Our ruling

Gingrich said that students today "take more years to get through" college. While graduation rates are lower than experts would like them to be, it's not true that students are taking longer to graduate from four-year institutions. The percentage graduating on time at four-year colleges has actually risen consistently in recent years. The only exception to this pattern is at two-year colleges, where the percentage of students graduating within three years has fallen slightly. On balance, we rate the statement Mostly False.



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