Though college graduates have grappled with educational debt for years, the student loan crisis is getting out of hand. The average Class of 2017 graduate came away owing $39,400. All told, Americans are on the hook for nearly $1.5 trillion in student loans.

It's easy to blame the ever-climbing cost of college for students' collective struggle, but new data from Complete College America reveals another reason why debt levels are so high these days: Students aren't graduating on time.

Young male at a laptop with two young females behind him who appear to be studying


Surprisingly, only 5% of full-time students pursuing associate degrees at public two-year colleges graduate on time. And in a survey of over 580 public four-year colleges, only 50 report on-time graduation rates for 50% or more of their first-time, full-time students.

If you're a student looking to keep your debt load to a minimum, it's imperative that you take steps to complete your degree on schedule. Otherwise, you might wind up way in over your head on the loan front.

The problem with graduating late

The longer it takes to finish your studies, the more your degree will cost you. It's that simple. Take a look at the following chart, which shows what tuition and fees averaged for the 2017-2018 academic year:

College Type

Average Cost of Tuition and Fees



Four year in-state public


Four year out-of-state public





Let's assume you're attending a four-year college in your home state and that it takes you an extra year to graduate. As such, you'll take on an additional $9,970 in debt. If it takes you 10 years to pay off that loan at 4.45% interest -- which respectively represent the standard repayment period and interest rate for federal student loans -- you'll be looking at $12,371 all in.

That, however, assumes you were able to get that extra $9,970 in federal loans. Because federal loans max out at a certain point, not graduating on time increases your risk of having to resort to private lenders.

So now let's imagine you borrow $9,970 from a private lender charging 12% interest. Over 10 years of payments, that additional year of school will wind up costing you $17,165. (Unlike federal loans, which have interest rates that are regulated, private lenders can charge as much interest as they want.)

Another thing: The $9,970 figure we've been working with assumes another year of tuition and fees only. Throw in the cost of room and board for an extra year, and you'll easily double the amount of additional debt you take on.

Not only will graduating late put you at risk of racking up more debt, but it'll cost you in lost wages, as well. According to Complete College America, students give up an average of $45,327 in earnings by not graduating on time. Talk about a double whammy.

Go in with a plan

If you'd rather avoid the trap of racking up endless amounts of student debt, be sure to go into college with a reasonable plan for tackling your studies. Ideally, you should aim to choose your major early on, which will help ensure that you complete the various classes you need within your target time frame.

If you're not sure what it is you want to study, consider starting out at community college and transferring to a four-year school after two years. This way, you can fulfill some of your prerequisites at a much lower cost so that if you do wind up extending your studies, the damage isn't as extensive.

Finally, aim to commute back and forth to classes if that's an option. With room and board costing well over $10,000 a year at some schools, that can be a huge savings right there.

Though college is undeniably expensive, graduating on time can make it a bit less costly. And the sooner you wrap up your studies, the sooner you can enter the working world and put that hard-earned degree to good use.