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Earning a college degree is a big deal. The classes you take in college will open your mind, and graduating will open doors to a broad range of employment opportunities not available to those without a degree.

Cutbacks in funding for higher education and rising tuition and fees mean that most students today graduate with a lot of student loan debt. One step every college student can take to make their degree more affordable is to graduate in four years or less.

According to the latest figures from The College Board, in-state tuition and fees at public universities now averages $9,410 a year. Out-of-state students will pay $23,893 to attend a public university, and a whopping $32,405 to attend a private college.

Keep in mind that students often don’t pay the advertised sticker price — after factoring in school-based aid and state and federal assistance, the average annual net cost to attend college in your home state is typically closer to $17,000.

Factor in another $15,000 to $20,000 a year for housing and living expenses, and the total cost for a four-year college degree can easily exceed $100,000. But taking longer to graduate not only means spending more on tuition and other expenses — it means pushing back the timeline for starting that better-paying job that your degree will help you land. A study by NerdWallet estimates that once you factor in interest on loans and loss of income and retirement savings, taking six years to graduate instead of four could cost you $300,000.

Fewer college students graduating in 4 years

Statistics show that students are taking longer to graduate than ever before.

Policymakers now track six-year graduation rates as a yardstick of success. Critics say Department of Education statistics tend to undercount the number of students who graduate within that time frame, because schools don’t get credit for students who transfer.

But studies that track transfer students also paint a discouraging picture. Only 53 percent of students entering college in the fall of 2009 graduated within six years, down 2.1 percentage points from the preceding class, according to a study by researchers at Indiana University’s Project on Academic Success and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Higher education experts highlight several reasons for this troublesome trend. First, in a Catch-22 situation, the increasing cost of higher education means that more students have to work to afford to go to school, which means some take less academic hours per semester and need longer to graduate.

Second, as a 2014 report from Complete College America points out, many colleges and universities have been gradually adding unnecessary graduation requirements and remedial classes, which forces students to stay enrolled in school for longer.

Pitfalls to avoid

College administrators emphasize the need to carefully plan your course schedule. But noting that there is only one adviser available for every 400 students, the Complete College America report concluded that students “get lost in the process, slowed down by unclear expectations, numerous obstacles, and having no clear pathway to graduation day.”

With “dozens of majors to choose from and no clear direction, overwhelmed students make avoidable mistakes based on uninformed choices,” the study’s authors lamented.

Large class sizes are not uncommon, even at prestigious Ivy League colleges. You will often find as many as 200 to 500 students in required lower division classes at big state universities, which means you’re lucky to talk to the prof twice in a semester (and you better hope you get a competent teaching assistant).

While the academic qualifications of faculty at U.S. colleges are generally not an issue, some faculty members are better teachers than others. Less experienced instructors often teach introductory classes.

In some cases, professors are simply deeply intellectual and not strong communicators. In other cases, personal research projects are a priority and the professor begrudges the fact he has to spend time teaching undergraduate classes. It’s always a good idea to talk to a student adviser who’s been around for a few years when you get down to the nitty-gritty of figuring your course schedule, particularly in your freshman year.

Another potential pitfall is signing up for a class you are not prepared for. In most cases, advanced courses have prerequisites, but it’s still important to make sure you have at least a basic idea of what you are getting into, and make sure you are intellectually prepared. If you feel like you might be getting in over your head, think about doing some reading or online preparation before the class begins. Also be sure to seek out help in the first couple of weeks of class if you feel you are falling behind.

Time management is an important part of college life. The academic expectations are much greater than in high school, as are the opportunities to socialize on campus, so you need to learn to effectively manage your time. Many students are in the habit of spending a lot of time using their smartphone for entertainment purposes, and this habit can become a problem if takes time away from attending class, studying or organized social interactions.

Tips for staying healthy (and sane)

Your physical health has a big impact on your mental health and on your ability to stay focused on and motivated for your studies.

For starters, make a point to eat healthy foods, and consume intoxicants like alcohol and coffee in moderation. Also make sure to get enough sleep, as numerous studies have confirmed that lack of sleep impairs concentration.

Exercise is also important to keep the body healthy and the brain operating at peak capacity. A recent study at North Carolina State University concluded that students that exercised regularly had an up to 50 percent greater chance of graduating than those who exercised little or not at all. The study also showed that for every hour a week increase in physical activities, GPAs moved up by an average of 0.06.

Graduating from college in four years should be an important goal for almost every non-engineering student today. That’s because graduating in five or six years means one or two more years paying out educational expenses of around $20,000 a year instead of getting a job and bringing in $40,000, $80,000 or more a year. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and some students have family situations or military commitments that means they have to go to school part time.

Just keep in mind that the sooner you graduate, the less student debt you’ll have, and the sooner you’ll be working at your dream job and making real money.

Programs to encourage on-time graduation

The good news is there are a growing number of state and federal programs designed to keep students on track to graduate from college in four years.

Pell for Accelerated Completion Grant Program

The popular federal Pell Grant program has been providing financial support for low-income students to attend college since 1972.

In January of this year, President Obama unveiled the “Pell for Accelerated Completion” program, which is intended to give 700,000 students Pell Grants averaging $1,915 to take classes during the summer.
If funding is approved by Congress, the new $2 billion program would give 2.3 million students an opportunity to claim an extra $300 in Pell Grants as an “On-Track Pell Bonus” if they sign up for 15 or more credit hours per semester in an academic year.

U.S. Department of Education Experimental Sites Initiative

Another federal program announced late last year will allow around 10,000 high school students to receive Pell Grants to enroll in college courses. The idea is that getting three or four basic prerequisite courses out of the way will give students a jump start on college and encourage on-time graduation.

Funded by the Department of Education, the Experimental Sites Initiative plans to disburse $20 million in special Pell Grants in the 2016-2017 school year. High school students can use the grants to take 12 or more credit hours of nonremedial postsecondary courses which count toward a degree at a participating college or university.

Along the same lines, high schools offering Advanced Placement classes through The College Board’s program can help students earn college credit — if they can pass the related AP Exam (not everyone agrees that AP classes are worthwhile).

’15 to Finish’ program

When the University of Hawaii launched a “15 to Finish” program in 2012, the goal was to encourage students to take the 15 credit hours per semester required to graduate in four years. Nearly all bachelor’s degree programs (except engineering and architecture) require 120 credits for graduation, which means you must average 15 credits per semester to graduate in four years.

The program was a success, boosting four-year graduation rates from less than 20 percent to more than 28 percent in three years. Complete College America has helped spread the word, with colleges in at least 15 other states launching their own programs.

Since launching “15 to Finish” and other strategies promoted by Complete College America, Purdue University Calumet the percentage of students taking 15 or more credits during their first semester more than doubled, to 66 percent.

A 2013 Complete College America survey of 329 public colleges in 30 states found most college students (69 percent) were not enrolled in a schedule that would graduate them on time, and that 52 percent of students categorized as “full time” were taking less than 15 credits. Federal financial aid policies only require that students be enrolled in 12 credits each semester to be considered eligible for assistance, the group noted.

Nebraska’s ‘Commit to Complete’ program

Faced with the fact that only 32 percent of Nebraska college students graduate in four years, the University of Nebraska recently started a similar program called “Commit to Complete.”

Commit to Complete has you sitting down with adviser before your freshman year to chart out a course to graduation. This involves discussing your major and your personal situation, then developing a course map that charts your course schedule through graduation. Your adviser will provide you with information about the various academic and personal resources available on campus. Note that while your adviser will typically suggest 30 credit hours per year for most students, you do not have to take a specific number of credit hours to participate in the program.

Join an honor society

A recent study suggests that joining an honor society leads to notably higher on-time graduation rates. The study tracked 11,000 members of Phi Theta Kappa, a large honor society for community college students. The subjects were followed from when they first joined the well-known honors society as freshmen in the 2008-2009 academic year.

The study showed that a solid 85 percent of Phi Theta Kappa students ended up with either an associate or bachelor’s degree within a six year period. Furthermore, an additional 7 percent of the honor society’s students were currently enrolled at a four-year college, leading to a very impressive overall “success” rate of 92 percent. Note that recent data shows only 38.1 percent of students who first enrolled in a two-year college ended up with any degree within six years.

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Clayton Browne has written and edited articles on topics ranging from linguistics to semiconductor patents. He holds a master of science degree in linguistic anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.