Study: Extra Years in College Cut into Income, Retirement

A young female college student between classes.

In just a few short months, a new crop of freshmen will begin their college journey.

For first-year students, four years may seem like more than enough time to pick a major and earn a degree.

But national data shows that roughly one in five students take longer to complete college. And each extra year cuts into their lifetime earnings and retirement savings, according to an analysis by NerdWallet — a San Francisco-based consumer finance company.

“Taking six years to get a four-year college degree can cost students up to almost $300,000 in tuition, interest on loans, and forgone income and retirement savings,” the report notes.

The analysis used data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers to examine the financial outcomes of students who began college in 2008 and took five or six years to earn a degree.

Losing credits by transferring, enrolling in unnecessary courses, and taking too few credits per semester were some of the top reasons students failed to graduate in four years — with retirement savings taking the biggest hit.

“Forgone income may be a loss, but retirement savings get hit even harder,” report authors note. “…We found that students who graduate in five years would miss out on $82,074 in lifetime retirement savings, and six-year graduates would fail to gain up to $150,882.”

Read the full report and learn more about paying for college.

Admitted writer/editor Mary Stegmeir welcomes additional comments and story ideas at

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