Prioritize Graduating on Time – That’s 4 Years

Think saving and paying for four years of college is expensive? It is.

But many families face even higher out-of-pocket college costs. A contributing factor – the amount of time it is taking for students to graduate.

The traditional four-year graduation schedule – whereby students earn a Bachelor’s degree, from initial enrollment to completion, in four years – can easily extend to five years, six years or even eight years.

Taking longer to graduate costs you more money – you get to pay the cost of attendance, including annual increases, for each additional year. And if your financial aid awards and scholarships only cover four years of college, you’ll have to make up the difference. Are you ready to add thousands of extra dollars to your college tab?

If curbing your family’s college costs is a priority, then one key metric to review in your college search is the four-year graduation rate.

Four, Six, Eight Years to Graduate

According to recent estimates, the average four-year college graduation rate is 41%. So, nearly 60% of students do not graduate on time and take longer than four years to complete a four-year degree.

And, four-year graduation rates vary significantly by institution. On the high end, some schools graduate more than 90% of their students on time. On the lower end, some schools graduate less than 40% of their students on time.

Today, many four-year institutions, as well as the U.S. Dept. of Education, calculate and promote a successful graduation rate based on six years, some schools even calculate success based on students graduating in eight years.

Unfortunately, touting that kind of “success” leads families on a slippery slope to paying a lot more for the college journey.

Schools can help or hurt in graduating students on time

While students are ultimately responsible for managing their path through college, schools play a key role in helping students thrive, including helping them graduate on time.

A lower four-year graduation rate, can be a sign of more systemic or endemic issues for an institution, which can ultimately interfere with students progressing efficiently. 

A few examples of problematic institutional issues include:

  • Shortage of classes: When students don’t have access to the classes they need, because the classes are not offered as often or fill-up quickly for popular subjects, it’s easy to get behind especially if prerequisite classes are needed before advancing to other classes in a major.
  • Too challenging or unnecessary prerequisites: Students may get tripped up in certain required classes, for example, advanced math courses like calculus. Some prerequisites may really be better suited for smaller group instruction, but instead are taught lecture hall style, where more students may get weeded out instead of getting help to master the subject. Schools may also have prerequisites that are outdated or have not been more recently evaluated for relevancy to specific majors.
  • Lack of academic advisor support: Academic advisors can help students understand and navigate their college requirements. But, if the student-advisor ratio is too high (the advisor works with too many students at one time) or advisors don’t have good tracking tools, students may not get the attention or guidance needed to help them stay on course and overcome the inevitable hurdles they will encounter.
  • Roadblocks to transferring credits that count: While schools may generally accept a transfer of credits from other institutions, it is actually the department of the student’s major that makes the determination as to whether transferred credits will count toward completion of the major. Confusion in this area leaves students with too many credits they can’t use but have already paid for, yet still needing to pay for more credits that will satisfy their major requirements.

Any one of these issues alone can hobble student progression. Facing more than one of these issues can become real choking points and knock students off course from graduating on time.

To quickly search college graduation rates, visit College Results Online where you can see at-a-glance the four, five and six-year rates:

The College Results data does not provide clarity as to why the graduation rates are what they are, so you will have to dig deeper when researching the schools on your list in order to uncover the details.

Student success requires more study time

Graduating on time requires serious effort. Generally, students will need to acquire 120 credit hours to graduate, so during a two-semester academic year, students will need to earn 15 credit hours each semester (roughly the equivalent of 5 classes each semester.)

However, it’s easy to get derailed in earning those credits. Working long hours at a job(s), switching majors, changing schools, and not taking enough classes each semester, including making up for failed classes, are often cited as reasons students lose their way.

For greater college success, students need more time devoted to classwork and studying and being engaged on campus. Anything that detracts from these efforts, represents real risk to an on-time graduation.

Prioritize on-time graduation

With the prevalence of the six-year graduation rate, it’s clear that students face an uphill climb in graduating on time, in four years. And families face an uphill battle in trying to manage their college costs; Additional years to graduate mean higher costs and can lead students and parents to take on more debt to cover those costs.

Make the four-year graduation rate a priority in your family’s college journey:

  • Expand your college search to find better fit schools academically for the student and better fit financially for your family, to help minimize the most common distractions that impede on-time graduation (working long hours to earn money for college, transferring schools, changing majors, etc.)
  • Get a jump start by earning college credits in high school
  • Take summer classes at community college to earn or make-up for general or elective credits
  • Seek help when needed, both during the high school years and college years, to tackle barriers to moving ahead

Paying for college is already a herculean feat for most families. Graduating on time will help to avoid adding to those costs.