That four-year college path you see on television and in the movies, and maybe you experienced yourself some years back, is not the experience for many higher-ed students in New Jersey.

In fact, fewer than 75% of New Jersey's full-time, first-time college students seeking a bachelor's degree actually reach that goal within six years.

According to the latest statistics from the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education (2015 students), which uses information from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, 51.1% of full-time, first-time students at New Jersey public colleges and universities earn their bachelor's degree in four years. The average rate is just under 58% at private institutions throughout the state.

At both public and private schools, about two-thirds of students have graduated within five years, on average.

"The four-year graduation rate is much lower than people expect overall," Jonathan Koppell, president of Montclair State University, told New Jersey 101.5. "And that's not necessarily a failure; that's just a reality that a lot of people take longer to get their bachelor's degree."

According to Koppell, graduation at the six-year mark is "the right measure at this moment" to examine. Not all students have the ability to focus only on college when they attend, even if they're enrolled as full-time status.

"The majority of people who are going to college are also working, or they're taking care of family, they might have some military service worked in, they're taking a semester off here and then because they have to," he said. "It's much more complicated."

IPED's figures put Montclair State's six-year graduation rate at 67.3% (percentage of 2015 students who earned their degree by 2021). Forty-six percent of full-time undergraduates who entered Montclair State in the fall of 2017 earned their degree within four years.

The four-year graduation rate ranges widely among institutions in New Jersey. More than 89% of the 1,318 full-time, first-time students at Princeton in 2015 had a diploma in hand by 2019. Of the 1,192 new full-time students at Rutgers-New Brunswick, 35.2% were out in four years.

Nationally, 60.1% of traditional students who entered college in 2014 earned a degree within six years.

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"You're not mostly losing people in their last year," Koppell said. "The vast majority who don't make it to the finish line, you're losing them in the beginning."

From the fall semester of 2014 through the fall semester of 2021, an average of 81.6% of full-time, first-time undergraduates at Montclair State returned for a second year, according to IPEDS data.

"We focus a lot of attention on the transition, even before someone comes to college, and really try to get them ready to navigate that first year," Koppell said. "That's the key, even the first semester."

Student loan debt is an even greater burden on students who never achieve a degree, Koppell added.

In fall 2020, the retention rate of full-time, first-time students seeking a bachelor's degree averaged around 87% among public institutions in New Jersey, and around 81% among private institutions.

Eugene Lepore, executive director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, noted that while graduation rates often capture only full-time, first-time students, many students in New Jersey attend part time, transfer in or out, or are otherwise considered "non-traditional students.'

"We also know that socioeconomic factors and academic preparation play a large role in persistence to graduation," Lepore said. "With that in mind, our state colleges and universities continue to seek out innovative ways to engage students and provide the proper supports."

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at

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