How long is too long to be in college?

There is no “right” amount of time to be in college, and, depending on your life goals, there is no such thing as “too long” to be in college. The “right” amount of time depends on what is right for you.

Do you want to enter the job market ASAP? Or are you simply looking to indulge an academic interest? Are you looking to keep yourself stimulated in retirement? Or do you want to go back to school to further your already active career?

The answers to these questions will help you determine the “right” amount of time for you to be in school, but you also must acknowledge that life gets in the way. For personal, familial, health, financial, and other reasons, many students decide it’s best for them to “hit pause” on their degrees. This does not reflect on them or their abilities, but simply means that college was not the right thing for them at that moment.

In fact, you might be surprised by how common “hitting pause” or slowing down your coursework is. 40% of college students take longer than six years to complete their education.

Think you’re “too old” for college? Think again.

Will taking a long time to graduate hurt my academic performance?

There is no clear relationship between the duration it takes one to graduate and their performance in classes. In fact, some research suggests that the older a student gets, and the deeper into their coursework they get, the better students they become. According to the Journal of International Education Research:

Students with a higher level of cumulative credit hours perform better than students with fewer cumulative credit hours. Therefore, we may infer that a senior student (higher cumulative credit hours) is more focused and serious about academic performance than a freshman student (lower cumulative credit hours).

Journal of International Education Research, 2016

They go on to make a similar conclusion about the relationship between student age and academic performance:

This study shows that older students are more likely to be better performers than younger students. There are a number of reasons why older students perform better than younger students. For example: increased self-efficacy perceptions (Chemers, Hu and Garcia, 2001), more focused cognitive abilities (Hughes and Smith, 1990), and increased self- discipline (Duckworth and Seligman, 2005).

Journal of International Education Research, 2016

How long on average does it take college students to earn a bachelor’s degree?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the median time from enrollment to graduating with a bachelor’s degree is 52 months, or 4.3 years. This means that, on average (or “on median”, to be more precise), it takes more than four years to earn what is commonly referred to as a “four-year” bachelor’s degree.

However, the time-to-graduation can vary quite widely, and is dependent largely on your age at enrollment, with older students taking significantly longer on average to earn their degrees. NCES reports that, “One-half of those age 23 years or younger graduated in 45 months or less, compared with 162 months or less for those age 30 years or older.”

Demographic and enrollment characteristicsMedian number of months
23 or younger45
24 to 2981
30 or older162
Age completed requirements for 2015–16 bachelor’s degree

Time-to-graduation can also vary slightly by race/ethnicity, as well as whether you’re attending a public, private nonprofit, or private for-profit institution. Earning your B.S. or B.A. from private for-profit institutions can take up to twice as long on average, compared to public or private nonprofit colleges and universities.

Will taking a “long-time” to finish college hurt my career?

The vast majority of recruiters out there will not spend much, if any, time lingering on the amount of time it took for you to get your degree. They’ll be much more interested in the degree which you received, as well as any accreditations, awards, and experience you picked up while earning your bachelor’s.

For the rare recruiter who asks about a “longer” time spent in college on your resume, a quick and honest explanation is all that is required, same as if a recruiter asked about a gap in your job history. Getting one’s academic performance back on track is an extremely common reason for why some people take longer longer than average to get a degree. But even besides academics, think of all other reasons that someone might extend their time in college:

  • Starting/growing a family
  • Illness—mental, physical, or otherwise
  • Seizing an opportunity to travel, start a business, do something exciting
  • Spending more time to focus on developing a specific skillset through your classes
  • Transferring to a school where not all your credits carried over—and perhaps even doing it a second time
  • Getting your financials in order (It’s no secret that college isn’t cheap.)
  • Working one or more jobs alongside your educational pursuits

Any company that would refuse to hire you for one of these reasons—or the plethora of reasons listed here—is not a company you want to work at anyways.

You should also be aware of interview questions that are illegal for recruiters to ask, so that if any questioning ventures into the inappropriate or against the law, you can simply say, “That is not something that I’m legally expected to answer, but I’d be happy to hear your next question.”

Will I struggle to make or keep friends if I’m at college “too long”?

Besides the fact that, once again, there is no such thing as “too long” to be at college, it is worth noting that taking a longer-than-average time to graduate may mean that you have friends come and go while you finish your studies. This can be disheartening, but you should also view it as an opportunity to make even more connections and grow your network.

Strong “keeping in touch” skills and an active commitment to keeping friendships alive will help you maintain friendships even if your friends graduate before you do.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: