Study Snapshot: Delayed Time-to-Degree and Post-College Earnings
Study Snapshot: Delayed Time-to-Degree and Post-College Earnings

For Immediate Release: May 22, 2019

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Collin Boylin,
(202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell)

Study Snapshot: Delayed Time-to-Degree and Post-College Earnings

Study: "Delayed Time-to-Degree and Post-College Earnings"
Authors: Dirk Witteveen (University of Oxford, Nuffield College), Paul Attewell (The Graduate Center— City University of New York)

This study was presented at the AERA 2019 Annual Meeting, April 5-9, Toronto, Canada. (Session: Nuances in Pathways to Postcollege Labor Market Outcomes.) A copy of the paper, which is currently under review for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, is available to journalists upon request from the AERA communications team. 

Main Finding:

  • College students whose time to graduation is delayed beyond four years are just as likely to be employed a decade after earning a bachelor’s degree as their “on-time” classmates. However, on average, delayed graduates earn 8 percent to 15 percent less, depending on the length and type of delay, than their on-time peers. If delayed time-to-degree is combined with full-time work prior to graduation, the earnings penalty is completely erased, regardless of the length of delay.


  • The authors note there is a popular assumption that a delay between college entry and college graduation is problematic. It is often perceived as a waste of resources for educational institutions and individual students. However, there has been little prior research on the consequences of delayed time to degree for graduates’ labor market outcomes. This study finds disadvantages of delay, but also reports several important nuances.
  • The study’s findings indicate that delayed-time-to-degree does not matter for one’s employment chances after earning a bachelor’s degree. They note this finding was surprising, but good news, since 62 percent of all four-year college graduates experience some kind of delay (taking more than 48 months: four years) before attaining their degree.
  • However, the earnings penalty of delayed graduation is substantial, ranging from 8 percent for a relatively small delay to about 15 percent in cases of longer delays. These earnings deficits appear even after controlling for a range of factors that contribute to earnings variation. In contrast, if the delay is combined with full-time work during college, the negative earnings impact of delay is cancelled out completely.
  • The authors identify five “structural forces” that increase time-to-degree, including part-time enrollment, non-credit remedial coursework, transfers between institutions, “stopping out,” and changing majors or taking on double majors.
  • The authors note that growing numbers of students are working large numbers of hours to pay for tuition or other bills, and are “stopping out”—alternating between semesters of enrollment and non-enrollment en route to their degrees.  
  • For their study, the authors analyzed longitudinal data from the U.S. Department of Education that surveyed college graduates 10 years after they obtained their bachelor’s degree.  The authors looked at a nationally representative sample of 7,130 individuals from the Education Department’s Baccalaureate and Beyond (B&B) 1993 survey.
  • The survey looked at students who were 21 years old or younger when they first enrolled in college and who earned their degrees between 1993 and 2003. The authors note this particular data set provides the most reliable source of students’ post-college labor market positions.  More recent B&B datasets with shorter time frames suffer from high levels of current graduate school enrollment among bachelor’s degree graduates.
  • “Our major findings are two-fold. On the one hand, we show that the earnings penalty associated with delayed time-to-degree is substantial and cannot be ignored,” said study coauthor Dirk Witteveen, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford. “On the other hand, we find that previously unconventional routes to the bachelor’s degree, while more challenging for students, can also lead to successful labor market careers.”
  • The authors were interested in seeing whether delayed time-to-degree—usually a negative signal to employers—would be cancelled out if students had a full-time job before graduation.
  • “We were surprised to see that having a full-time job during college indeed erases the penalty of delay on earnings after graduation,” said Witteveen.  “Even more surprising to see was that it does not matter how long the delay is, or whether it was combined with a non-employment stop-out, just as long as there was full-time work at some point.”
  • “On average, students reduce the chance of experiencing an earnings penalty by avoiding stop-outs,” said Witteveen. “However, if students use stop-outs to gain work experience, these stints can be quite beneficial to future careers.”
  • The authors note that while some factors that affect time-to-degree are partly a matter of student choices—stopping out, changing majors, part-time attendance—colleges may also contribute to delayed degrees to some extent. For example, colleges may have some majors that require well over 120 credits for graduation, or tight restrictions on awarding full course credit to some transfer students.
  • “Knowing that there are post-graduation earnings consequences for delayed degrees should spur college administrators to make adjustments where possible to facilitate timely progress toward graduation and to identify and remove hurdles that slow students down,” said Witteveen. “For many students, forms of flexibility—offering evening classes, online classes, and particularly summer classes—can provide opportunities to keep up or to reduce the delay as much as possible.”
  • The authors suggest that policies aimed at encouraging all students to graduate on time ignore the realities facing many students today. “Customized approaches to working students would be preferred over simply discouraging working students away from their work life, which is often necessary to make ends meet,” said Witteveen.
  • Funding note: This research was supported by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ascendium Education Group.

To talk to the study authors, please contact AERA Communications: Tony Pals, Director of Communications,, (202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell); Collin Boylin, Communications Associate,, (202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell).

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The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.