PhD Completion Rates: What Percentage of Students Finish Programs “On Time”?

My experience earning a doctorate still seems consistent with current PhD completion rates even though it’s been a few years. As a Duke undergraduate whose ability to attend college depended on grants and loans, I selected the required courses in the proper sequence to avoid paying for unnecessary credits and extending my time to graduate. During my first foray as a graduate student, my MBA program’s structure kept full-time students on a two-year track.

When I contemplated returning to college for a doctorate while working full-time, I opted for a cohort-based program at the University of Pennsylvania because I believed it would motivate me to stay on track to graduate “on time.” As we observed the cohorts ahead of us, it became clear that not everyone finished on time and some not at all.

Students who didn’t complete the doctoral program on time at Penn were required to pay $5,000 per semester to continue to be supervised by their doctoral dissertation committee. The idea of paying the “extension fee” was to keep the student working to complete the degree instead of sitting out or dropping out.

Approximately 60% of my class completed our dissertations “on time.” Ten percent did not complete the program. Five percent took a leave of absence, returned with another class, and completed. The remaining 25% completed the program during a six-month to three-year period beyond our targeted graduation date. All in that group paid extra fees.

Grand Canyon Education Accused of Racketeering Scheme

Last week, I read about a lawsuit against Grand Canyon Education (GCE), the online program manager that provides marketing and other services to the non-profit Grand Canyon University (GCU). The plaintiffs allege that “artificial bottlenecks” in the university’s doctoral programs led to higher costs than advertised.

Claims made by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit appear to mirror those made when the U.S. Department of Education fined Grand Canyon University $37.7 million last year for falsely advertising doctoral program costs to more than 7,500 students. Grand Canyon University announced immediately that it would appeal the fine.

The ongoing battles between the U.S. Department of Education, GCE, and GCU are well-known. The issues in these cases relate to full disclosure and transparency about the costs of completing a degree instead of the risk of doing so. It’s surprising to me and a few of my friends that any university would minimize the time and cost to complete a doctoral degree given most outcomes.

I don’t have insider knowledge of the merits of the Department of Education or plaintiffs’ claims. In fact, I haven’t reviewed any of the evidence presented. However, I thought it was important to review wording used by other doctoral-granting institutions and statistics about doctoral degree completion available to the public.

PhD Completion and Attrition

A frequently cited study about completion rates of PhD students was published by the Council of Graduate Schools in 2008. Titled PhD Completion and Attrition: Analysis of Baseline Demographic Data from the PhD Completion Project, the paper was authored by Robert Sowell, Ting Zhang, Nathan Bell, and Kenneth Redd.

Data from PhD programs at 22 research partners and 18 project partners were included in Phase II of the CGS study. At the aggregate level, the data indicated that 57% of the doctoral candidates in the sample completed their degree programs within ten years, and 20% completed them after seven years. Completion rates ranged widely across disciplines.

The authors noted that the demographic categories of domestic students producing the largest growth in PhD enrollment (i.e., underrepresented minorities and women) were groups with the lowest completion rates. Women and underrepresented minorities also had higher late completion rates than men and white students.

I reviewed the list of the 40 partners in the CGS study. Other than Arizona State University, none were schools with notable online enrollments at the time. Many were elite or well-known research universities.

Statistics Published by Universities Offering Doctoral Degrees

National University’s statistics for doctoral degrees was the first site I visited. NU cites a 2021 study indicating that doctoral students needed an average of 7.3 years to complete their doctorate. NU’s site reports that online doctoral degrees often offer accelerated programs for students, and tuition costs are often lower than in-person programs. The source for this latter fact was written by someone with a PhD for the Accredited Schools Online website, a marketing site for online programs.

Arizona State University (ASU) publishes a page about doctoral statistics. The blog, authored by its graduate dean, states that ASU students advance to candidacy on average in three to four years. After candidacy, most students take one to two years to finish all PhD requirements. “This is great news—because it means that roughly 85% of our PhD students finish within six years.”

Coursera publishes a page that outlines the time it can take to earn a PhD. The article notes that nearly 50% of PhD students drop out after reaching the dissertation phase. The site also notes that the average loan debt for a PhD graduate in 2023 was $134,797. The source of that fact is the Education Data Initiative.

UCLA offers doctoral degrees in over 80 fields. Their published statistics claim that a doctoral degree at UCLA averages five years to complete. Their site also provides a link to program requirements and states that program requirements cover most things a current student needs to know to graduate on time.

Stanford University has one of the lowest published time-to-degree rates, with a median of 5.7 years for the 3,993 graduates of all doctoral programs from Summer 2018 through Spring 2023 (please note that this is the median, not the mean). Its site also notes that 63.2% of all doctoral program students graduate in six years or less (meaning that the rest do not). The highest rate of non-completers was 13.4% for students who began in 2018-2019.

Cornell University accepts less than 15% of its doctoral applicants for more than 3,000 students that begin their programs each year. The median time to a degree is 5.8 years and 81% of all doctoral candidates complete their programs within 7 to 12 years. There is a statement on Cornell’s site that I like – “The median time to degree can be thought of as the ‘mid-point’, where half of the students completed in a time period that is less than or equal to this value. The median is not affected by extreme values or outliers.”

The University of Chicago’s Office of the Provost reports that of all the doctoral students who enrolled in 2013-2014, 17% withdrew, 10% are still enrolled, and 73% completed their studies. For the students who enrolled in 2018-2019, the median time to a degree is projected to be 6.25 years.

Southern New Hampshire University, the university with the largest number of online students in the U.S., offers a low residency EdD program. SNHU’s website states that the cohort-based program is designed to take at least three years. Students needing extended time to complete the dissertation can continue registering for Colloquium courses to extend their time beyond their cohort schedule. SNHU offers up to eight years to complete the program from when you begin the first course. I could not locate specific facts about time to complete the program.

Grand Canyon University’s College of Doctoral Studies

Naturally, I couldn’t write an article like this without going to GCU’s College of Doctoral Studies page. I did not attempt to use any traditional sources to research older webpages, just the current ones.

I could not find an easy way to determine the specific cost of a doctoral degree at GCU without using the degree program calculator. I opted not to do that since it required me to submit my personal information (which might lead to being contacted), and I have already earned my doctoral degree.

Instead, I visited the Doctoral Degree FAQs page. For “How much do doctoral degrees cost?” the answer is “the cost of a doctorate degree depends on the degree type and the university offering it. GCU is committed to providing an affordable, quality education. For specific information on your program’s cost, visit our Tuition and Financial Aid page.”

The Tuition and Financial Aid page states that Doctoral and Research Continuation Courses cost $740 per credit. It also refers you to a separate section if you are enrolled in a doctoral program that requires a dissertation. There appears to be a separate box for each program that requires a dissertation that provides the average time to completion for that degree based on students who enrolled in that program at GCU over a specific period. It also provides the average tuition and fees paid by those graduates, including continuation courses.

I note that these boxes for each program are more specific than at least half of the other universities I accessed. At the same time, the fines and litigation could have pushed GCU to be more transparent than it was when the government accused them of not being transparent.

Completing a Doctoral Program is Not Easy

It’s been my good fortune to know many people who have completed doctoral programs. Those who completed professional doctoral degrees (JD, MD, DPT, EdD) immediately after graduating from college appear to have had fewer obstacles such as being married, having a family, and working full-time while going to college that interfere with graduation for older students.

Whether you rely on research from the Council of Graduate Schools or data reported by the institutions I selected, the percentage of students completing a doctoral degree within 10 years is low, given that all programs appear to require a master’s degree as a condition of enrollment.

The GCU site provides specific averages for students who completed doctoral degrees over a period, usually four years. One item that bears noting is the average cost, which includes tuition and fees, including continuation courses, but not the average borrowing. The Coursera article that I cited states the average doctoral completer loan is $134,797, including COL costs.

I published a series of articles about the high costs of medical degrees and law degrees along with other graduate degrees after the Wall Street Journal published an article about the high cost of grad school in the summer of 2021. The WSJ team did not surface the issue of continuation courses in their analysis of the costs.

Graduate students who are full-time students are likely to complete their degrees more quickly. Completing quicker means there’s less of a chance that you will have to take a continuation course(s) which are offered by everyone. A percentage of students borrow for cost-of-living (COL) in addition to tuition and fees. Extending the time to complete a doctoral degree while you are borrowing to pay for your COL means you will borrow more money.

I believe it’s inappropriate for the government to focus on a single institution for a claim regarding lack of transparency for how many doctoral students are required to take continuation courses. While the courses that I selected include several elite universities, there are more than a few with less transparency than GCU.

My academic area of interest is college student persistence. The easiest way to predict if someone will complete a degree is based on their background characteristics—GPA, SAT/ACT scores, education of parents, etc. Elite colleges usually have the highest graduation rates because they accept students with the highest GPAs, SATs, etc. They may also provide more generous financial aid packaging to students who are accepted to their programs.

Predicting the success of working adult students is more difficult because of the factors related to “life gets in the way”—i.e., work, finances, family, illness, etc. I would wager that GCU has more working adult graduate students than the elite universities whose data I cited. But it’s not the only university that recruits working adult graduate students.

The more elite programs used to have milestones referred to as oral examinations that they required all students to pass before they could continue to the dissertation phase. I don’t know if that is one of GCU’s milestones, and I don’t think that many, if any, online doctoral programs have such a milestone. They may have capstone courses seeking confirmation that the student has learned the key degree requirements.

With today’s focus on getting students through to completion, adding a requirement like oral examinations might be viewed as an impediment. At the same time, one of the reasons universities have continuation courses is to create a financial incentive for students to complete their programs.

GCU reported that its Doctor of Business Administration degree students took an average of 5.9 years to complete all program requirements and required an average of 10.4 Research Continuation courses to complete their dissertation. These program graduates paid an average of $52,247 in tuition and fees, including continuation courses, over the duration of their program.

Is the above information adequate disclosure? It might be for those who are better than average. But what about the other half? I think it’s hard to provide disclosures for everyone unless you publish the averages and then publish the extremes on the time to complete and high cost (because the lawyers would probably not advise publishing the quicker completers’ data).

We’ll see how the courts rule in these cases against GCE. Meanwhile, other universities might be wise to review the data that they publish. It’s a good idea to publish time to earn the degree, costs to earn the degree, and average salary earned at some period of time after earning the degree. One day, prospective students might be able to compare programs based on this data.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence