For the college students who will be paying for a four-year bachelor's degree long after graduation day, here's some consolation:
At least it didn't take you six or eight years.
College is expensive, yet unpredictably so.
After tuition discounts and financial aid, some students pay little for degrees from elite private institutions. Many of their peers, however, will pay far more than they expected for lower-cost universities.
A big reason for this is the increasing number of years it takes to earn a degree. Instead of doing something about this troubling trend, presidents of many public universities are encouraging it.
Four-year degrees are passe. More and more often, administrators want to draw attention to six- or even eight-year graduation rates, as if this was the new normal.
The U.S. Education Department reports the percentage of college students who graduate within four, five or six years.
The national data are embarrassing: 34 percent of those who earn a bachelor's degree need a fifth or sixth year to do it.
Many schools, ashamed by their low numbers, have pressed for a more liberal definition of graduation.
And the Education Department, seemingly more interested in placating colleges than providing useful information to students, has now dropped the somewhat-useful five-year graduation standard on its College Navigator website and included an eight-year rate.
Why stop there? Why not a 25- or 50-year graduation rate?
If you tell an applicant that "70 percent of our students graduate in eight years," is that really useful information?
Elite private schools can cost far less relative to public schools, not only because of the top schools' generous aid, but also because the students mostly graduate in the advertised four years, while those at state schools don't.
I looked at 20 elite private schools - the Ivy League colleges and others, including Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - and calculated that 87 percent of the students in the median Class of 2011 had graduated in four years, and 95 percent in six years.
I then took an unbiased sample of 20 lower-quality state universities - one of every 12 from the 248 state schools that Forbes magazine ranks.