Will Your College Student Graduate On Time?

The question of whether your college student will graduate on time is a loaded question.  It’s an important question, and it’s a tricky question.  As parents, we send our students off to college hoping that all will go without a hitch and that they will graduate in the expected four years.  We often do our careful financial planning based on the four-year timetable.  As we examine the question of graduating on time, there are two important things that we need to consider before we discuss time to graduation.

  • The first thing that we need to consider is what we mean by ”on time”. Although most of us still consider four years to be the norm for an undergraduate degree, according to the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the percentage of students who graduate in four years is approximately 36%.  The percentage who finish in six years is 57.5%.  This is approximately 10% less than the figure for the 1960’s.  Colleges have historically measured graduation rates which include those who graduate in 150% of the normal time — 6 years for a ”4-year degree.”  With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 2008, colleges now measure graduation rates with 200% of time — 8 years for a ”4-year degree.”  So we may need to question whether a ”4-year degree” is the norm.
  • The second important thing to keep in mind in any discussion of ”on time” graduation, is that there are never any guarantees.  Even those students who do everything that they should — everything expected of them, and everything to move ahead — may hit roadblocks.  There are never any guarantees.  The unexpected may always happen and may change any student’s timetable.

How to increase chances of success

So what, then, can you, as a parent, and your student do to try to increase the chances that he will graduate in four years — or at least close to four years?  Remembering that there are no guarantees or magic bullets, here are some things to consider, and to discuss with your student.  Remember, as always, that it is up to your student to take the lead.  Some coaching from the sidelines may be helpful, but your student will need to direct his path — and his timeline.

  • The first thing that you and your student may need to consider is whether the four year graduation is the most important goal for your student.  Is it realistic?  Is it the most crucial goal?  If your student is trying to balance other responsibilities — work or responsibilities at home — perhaps a four-year timeline is not practical.  It is important for your student to consider what is reasonable and realistic at the beginning of his college career.  Perhaps the ”five-year plan” makes more sense.
  • Your student might begin by anticipating some of the things that might cause a slow-down of his progress: poor planning and understanding of requirements, failing classes, dropping or withdrawing from too many classes, changing majors, attempting a double major, transferring to another school.  Some of these causes, such as a double major, changing major, or transferring, may be important and valid, but your student should know that it is possible that it may add time to his college career.
  • At the minimum, in order to attempt to finish on time, your student needs to do the minimum required in all of his coursework: go to class, do all work — on time, adhere to all deadlines, work closely with his advisor, take the appropriate number of credits each semester.  Exceptions and/or special circumstances may add time to the plan.
  • Your student might get a head start in high school or when he enters college. He might consider AP courses which will give him college credit, CLEP exams, summer classes prior to his freshman year, or summer bridge programs.
  • Your student needs to want to finish in four years.  If she is unmotivated or ambivalent about finishing college and/or leaving the social world of college, she might not be anxious to be done quickly.  Some students might enjoy college life so much that they would like to prolong the experience and delay the job decisions that are ahead.
  • Your student needs to keep his ”eyes on the prize” and be clear about his goals and his action plans to reach those goals.
  • Your student should read the college catalog carefully, paying close attention to all requirements for graduation.  What is the required number of credits?  What are the all-college or general education requirements?  What are the requirements of the major?
  • Your student should work closely with his academic advisor to be sure that she is choosing appropriate courses in the proper sequence.  Your student and her advisor should work to create a four year plan to be sure that she can accomplish everything.  Revisit and revise the plan each semester.
  • Your student should be sure to verify ”rumors” from other students about requirements or changes in requirements or procedures.  Students often get it wrong or may hear things out of context.
  • Your student may need to determine his best credit load per semester.  Although there may be an ideal, your student might find that he cannot adequately handle a certain number of credits per semester.  If taking five courses always results in your student dropping one or doing poorly in one, perhaps four courses per semester is appropriate.  Additional credits might be made up during the summer or winter intercession.  Knowing the appropriate load in advance will help your student to plan ahead.
  • Your student will need to practice her best time management skills.  Time wasted, or unplanned, may lead to extra time spent later.
  • Your student should get started in her major as early as possible.  Some students enter college knowing their direction, and others enter undecided and take some time to explore.  Exploring is a good approach, but as soon as your student has an idea for a major, she should get started.  This will allow more time to complete requirements, and also allow more time should she change her mind and decide to change majors.
  • If your student decides to double major in two areas, he should be aware that this is more likely to add extra time.  With careful planning, students may complete a double major in four years, but this requires extra coordination.  Your student should evaluate carefully whether the double major is worth the potential extra time and money to complete.
  • Your student should take as many required courses as early in her college career as possible.  She will not want to be in a position of needing two required courses later that conflict with each other or with something else important.
  • Your student will want to work at maintaining balance so that he will not burn out.  Being a serious student is important in college, especially if your student has a four year goal, however, there are other aspects to college that are equally important.  Your student should find time for friends, for extracurricular activities, for leadership opportunities, for community service and for activities that feed his passions.  Including these types of activities in early planning will make them possible.
  • Finally, your student, and you, need to know when the four-year plan just isn’t right.  For many students it is not.  Knowing when adding an extra semester, or year, can make it all make more sense and be more achievable, is important.  Although neither of you may have counted on extra time, sometimes it is the answer that makes the most sense.  You and your student may need to talk about the implications of this decision, both financially, emotionally, and logistically, but together you may decide that this is the best approach.  It may help you and your student to know that you are not alone.

Related Posts:

Reasons Why Your College Student Might Not Graduate in Four Years

Should My College Student Consider Deferring Enrollment for College?

Help!  My College Student Wants to Drop Out of College!

The Path to Graduation: What’s Your Student’s Timeline?

When Your College Student is Unhappy

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1 thought on “Will Your College Student Graduate On Time?”

  1. There are no guarantees, but usually, if they follow a timeline, a track that is set by the college itself, students tend to graduate on time. However, there are circumstances in which that sometimes doesn’t happen, be flexible, and supportive of your child, keeping them on track, and the day will come.


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