Only 41% of Undergraduates Finish in 4 years
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
August 18, 2023
Updated August 2023.
If your goal is to keep the cost of college down, it’s critical that your student graduates in four years. The average price of college tuition today is:
- $39,400 at private colleges
- $10,940 at public colleges (in-state residents)
- $28,240 at public colleges (out-of-state residents)
Adding another year adds 25% to the cost — and that’s not even taking room, board, fees, and other expenses into consideration!
That extra money is a budget breaker for most families. To compound things further, many scholarships you may have been awarded are only renewable for 4 years. So, the additional years may very well be full price.
Families may not realize that graduating in four years is not the normal college experience today. Only 41% of first-time, undergraduates seeking a bachelor’s degree received them within 4 years.
A word of caution, the new standard being set by most schools for the graduation rate is, in fact, a 6-year graduation rate for a 4-year degree program.
Why are students taking more than four years to graduate?
The New York Times researched what caused students to fail to graduate in four years. These are the primary reasons:
- Working outside of school for more than 25 hours per week.
- Not taking enough credits.
- Transferring without careful planning.
- Changing their major.
- Social isolation and depression.
- Not being prepared for the time demands of college.
Working outside of school.
Students who work more than 25 hours a week struggle to apply themselves to their schoolwork. They take fewer credits and may suffer academically as well as mentally. The little amount they may be earning from their job will be overwhelmed by the cost of additional years if they can’t keep up.
Consider borrowing responsibly. Limit it to federal loans. In that way, a student can apply themselves to their coursework and finish in time. They will leave school with a manageable loan but have a better chance of finishing sooner. Taking too long faces too high a cost.
Not taking enough credits.
Students may be lulled because they only need 12 credits to be considered full-time. However, let’s do a little math. 4 years equals 8 semesters. 12 credits per semester only equal 96 credits. The standard 4-year bachelor’s degree is 120 credits. You can see that taking only 12 per year won’t put a student on pace to finish on time. The ideal course load is 15 per semester.
Transferring without careful planning.
About 25% of 4-year students transfer colleges at some point. Transferring does not necessarily mean extra years of college. However, careful planning is required. Will the new college offer your major? Will your earned credits transfer? And more importantly, will those transferred credits apply to the major you are interested in? Sometimes a college will accept the credits but still require you to take their courses in your major. Admissions can review your transcript and let you know.
Look at any college course catalog, and you will be impressed by the various courses available. For some students, the choices are dangerous. Everything is shiny and exciting. Students need to focus on the coursework that will apply to their major and not go down the rabbit hole of many choices. Lacking focus leads to extra credits that don’t fit the requirements for a student’s major.
Students can struggle with choosing a major. Be sure to take the time to carefully think about a student’s skills, values, traits, strengths, etc. Also, be sure students are familiar with the major they are choosing. What do careers in that field look like? What are the job prospects? (If this thinking is a struggle, consider Guided Self Assessment from our friends at At The Core.)
Social isolation and depression.
“Sometimes students worry that committing to activities outside of classes gets in the way of doing well academically, but often it’s the opposite.” Students must leave their comfort zones, find connections, and get involved. That support will help them stay mentally healthy and stay on track.
Not being prepared for the time demands of college.
College is different than high school. Adults who attended college know this, but we can’t assume that students do too. Students spend more time in a classroom in high school. In college, they need to be spending more time on homework. The ratio of time spent in class versus time spent on work outside of class flips. Not knowing how to manage that flip can cause students to struggle and fall behind.
College is a time of freedom and fun. Students need to have the skills to be able to succeed at their work when the prospect of having fun beckons. They need to understand how to have good time management and study habits. They need to learn these habits BEFORE they leave home or the adjustment could cause extra semesters.
Watching the Bottom Line
Juggling all these challenges is a delicate balance, but the goal is an important one: Graduate in four years to keep a lid on soaring college costs.
Have questions about how to plan for a 4-year graduation timeline? Need help navigating the college decision as a family? We’re here for you. Reach out to us today by clicking here.
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