Many students and parents worried about racking up loans while paying for four years of college may not realize a stark fact: Four-year degrees often take five or six years.
Statistics reported by colleges and universities, compiled by the federal Department of Education, show around 40 percent of students in Pennsylvania and New Jersey graduate in four years from the school where they began.
A majority of students nationwide take more than four years to finish.
The ongoing conversation on college affordability - encouraged by President Obama and those looking to succeed him - needs to include the additional cost and debt brought on by taking extra time to earn a degree, school administrators and national studies say.
"If we looked at our debt data, students who graduated in four years actually had the lowest debt in Philadelphia," said Neil Theobald, president of Temple University. "But the problem was we had students who were taking five years, six years, seven years."
Just more than half of Rutgers University freshmen graduate in four years, while an additional quarter of them graduate during years five and six. In those extra years, Rutgers students take on an average of $6,229 more in debt, according to data the school provides to the state.
At Rowan University, the average debt load increases about $4,600 for students graduating in six years instead of four; at Stockton University, debt rises by $4,700.
Beyond the continued cost of ever-rising tuition comes additional pressure as scholarships and financial aid run out. And funds are often depleted for parents and students who planned to cover four years, not six.
Students aren't simply failing classes and falling behind, said Scott Snowden, director of Kean University's Center for Leadership and Service.
"It's more than just what's going on academically with the student, and sometimes it's more than just what's going on financially with that student," he said.
Snowden cited lack of academic advising support, financial illiteracy, credits that do not transfer when students change majors, and lack of direction.
Students accustomed to rigidly defined tracks in high school are often unsure how to navigate complicated college requirements, said Rory McElwee, Rowan's associate vice president for student retention.
And they may not understand what graduation requires, she said. At many schools, including Rowan, graduating in four years requires an average of 15 credits a semester. But taking 12 or more credits is considered full-time, so even straight-A students with full course loads can fall short without realizing it.
"We're working actively right now to try to raise awareness among students, as well as everyone else on campus, about time to degree," McElwee said. "What we're finding is that it's not obvious to people that number of credits matters."
Beefed-up advising support is at the center of many student success programs at area colleges and universities. Rowan is emphasizing regular meetings with advisers, with a goal of mandatory advising for all students. At Stockton University, every full-time faculty member is required by contract to be involved with student advising.
Stockton's four-year graduation rate rose from 41 percent to 53.4 percent in five years, which interim president Harvey Kesselman attributed in part to flat-rate tuition.
Since 2009, any full-time student taking 12 to 20 credits pays the same rate. Stockton also has increased course offerings and expanded the times it offers classes.
"We incentivized students to take more courses so that they would graduate in a shorter period of time," Kesselman said.
Making class scheduling more flexible has been an important part of Temple University's attempts to move students through faster, said Jodi Levine Laufgraben, a Temple vice provost.
Temple last year introduced "Fly in 4," a program in which students commit to follow checkpoints to stay on track to graduate. The voluntary program saw 89 percent participation last year; about 93 percent of freshmen have signed up this year.
When logging into their Temple online portal, Fly in 4 students see green and red checkmarks for completed and missed checkpoints, such as "Consult with an academic adviser to review progress towards degree."
"There are barriers to graduation if you take the wrong classes, if you're not preregistered, and you don't get into the class you need," said Theobald, Temple's president. "It's simply kind of routinizing commonsense behaviors; this isn't brain surgery."
The program has also led Temple to make some changes to course scheduling and advising structure, Laufgraben said. Students now have the flexibility to take summer classes in 12-, six- or four-week sessions.
This fall, Temple is introducing seven-week "short" semester options within its normal 14-week semester so students can take additional courses.
Fly in 4 also has a financial component, which Theobald and Laufgraben said was important because internal research showed money concerns are a major reason for taking longer than four years.
Five hundred students in each incoming class are selected for a $4,000 annual grant, which will continue as long as they follow the Fly in 4 program and also agree to limit their work hours.
"We need you to commit to making education your full-time job," Theobald said, "not working on campus your full-time job."
Students who work only a limited number of hours do better academically, Theobald said.
"We still have that myth though, and people talk about - and kind of put on a pedestal - the idea of working your way through college. That simply isn't possible in the modern world, the math doesn't work," said Theobald, who worked 10 hours a week tending bar in college.
A Fly in 4 grant allowed sophomore Henry Fountain, 19, to give up a weekend bus boy job in Lower Merion. "That would have been two days out of my week that I had to work, instead of studying or being on campus."
Fountain now talks up the program, letting friends know how it pushes him forward. Fly in 4 messages pop up every time he logs into the TU Portal website.
"It's right there in my face, so just the push that it gives me is something I really needed," said Fountain, who is on track to graduate on time.
"I'm just really glad that I'm in it, and the scholarship money was much needed," he said. "Even taking an extra semester just puts me at a disadvantage for having to pay for more classes."