graduating on time

When I was a college Financial Aid Director, I saw MANY students taking longer to complete their degree than they—or their family—had planned. This cost the students and the parents additional time… and money.

The Department of Education tracks schools’ 4-year graduation rates, and the national average for first-time full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students at a 4-year college or university is 38.8%. This percentage varies by the type of school, and ranges from 53% for private nonprofit schools to 34.8% for public schools to less than 14% for private for-profit schools! That means that almost TWO-THIRDS of all full-time students who start a 4-year degree do not complete that degree in four years.

The reasons for this can vary. Some students drop below full-time and complete their programs in five or more years. Some students change degree programs, so it takes longer to complete, while other students change schools entirely. Regardless of the reason, if you’ve planned on paying for four years of college and your child needs more than that, it’s going to cost you extra.

I didn’t want that to happen to my daughter, McKenna, so here was the strategy I employed:

  1. When McKenna started her undergraduate degree, I told her that I was contributing to four—and ONLY four—years of college for her. Anything beyond that was on her dime entirely. I had her look up the number of credits she would need to complete her degree, and then divide that number by 8 semesters. For her 120-credit degree, she determined that she would need to complete 15 credits per semester to fulfill her requirements in four years. This is important, since most schools consider taking 12 credits per semester to be full-time for their undergraduate degree programs. If McKenna had only taken the minimum 12-credit load, she would have been considered a full-time student, but it would have taken her ten semesters—five academic years—to complete her four-year degree.
  2. Before registering for classes every term, I encouraged McKenna to get a degree audit from the registrar (you can now often access one through the college’s student information system) and bring it to her meeting with her academic advisor. A degree audit is a listing of courses, showing progress toward your degree and remaining requirements to fulfill. With degree audit in hand, McKenna and her advisor could see what classes she still needed to complete her degree, map out the appropriate classes for the upcoming term, and make sure that she was on track to complete her degree on time.

My strategy worked, and McKenna graduated in four years. Actually, she transferred schools during her freshman year, added a second major during her sophomore year, and still completed her degree on time. With proper planning, it can be done.

Your student’s academic advisor plays a crucial role in your student’s on-time degree completion. Regular meetings with a competent academic advisor can make the difference between paying for four years of school and paying for five or more.

At some schools, faculty members also act as student advisors, while other schools are moving toward a model that has academic advisors that do nothing other than make sure students are on track to complete their degrees on time. Encourage your student to meet with their academic advisor at least once every semester before registering for classes for the upcoming term. This one simple thing could save you both time and significant money.

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Written by Tara Piantanida-Kelly
Tara Piantanida-Kelly is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Before joining College Coach, Tara worked as a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Menlo College, Rochester Institute of Technology, Holy Names University, among others.