New federal data released last month — to some media fanfare — suggest that postsecondary education students who persist in higher education, up to eight years, are finally getting their degrees. But let’s not get too excited.

Consider that:

  • The percentage of first-time, full-time public community college students who graduate within three years of initial enrollment (or 150 percent of regular time) declined from 24 percent in 2004 to 21 percent in 2012.
  • The percentage of four-year college students who earned a bachelor’s degree within five years of initial enrollment (or 125 percent of regular time) was 52.8 percent in 2013, a decrease of 1.6 percentage points compared to 1992.

What the new data really show is that if you don’t complete a bachelor’s program within six years of initial enrollment, you likely won’t ever complete one. Average graduation rates for four-year colleges increase by only about 3 percentage points when widening the evaluation lens from six-year to eight-year rates. Average graduation rates for two-year colleges increase by only 4 percentage points when widening the lens from three-year to four-year rates. (See chart below.)

Graduation rates over 4 years, 6 years, and 8 years

Even if you are on track to complete a bachelor’s or associate degree program in double the regular program time, think of the increased cost in the extra lengthy attendance. For a working class student, the average, annual out-of-pocket cost for college is more than $11,000. It’s even higher once financial aid eligibility runs out after six years. And the total out-of-pocket extra cost comes on top of foregone earnings associated with extra time in school. The combined effect for students is likely the assumption of expensive and unsafe private loans.

Drowning in debt, even with a degree, is no way to start (or grow) your professional life. It shouldn’t be accepted by federal or state policymakers. They can do better.

Colleges can do better, too. Each individual institution of higher education in need of boosting its completion rates should identify hurdles students encounter on the way to graduation and provide support necessary to clear those hurdles. Everyone at a college — from the president and provost to faculty and staff — should embody that mission. If you let students in, it’s your responsibility to see that they have every opportunity and get all the help they need to graduate.