The Path To Graduation: Will Your College Student Graduate on Time?

Your student graduated from high school and headed off to college, and you are picturing that next Commencement ceremony in another four years.  Or perhaps your student has been in college for a year or two and you see that Commencement just around the corner.  When your student walks across that stage it will be a big moment, and you are anxious for the celebration — and the last tuition bill.

But there is a possibility that your student’s college Commencement may not be four years after high school graduation.  Although four years of college is still the norm at most elite private colleges, more and more students are completing their college education on an individual timeline. 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%. That means that some students may not graduate at all, and many students who do graduate may take significantly longer than four years to complete their education.  Five or six years of college is now becoming the norm for many students.

Objectively, we may hear these statistics and find them moderately interesting.  However, when it is our college student who may take more than four years to complete his college education, we may become not only very interested, but alarmed.  We may have seen this coming or we may be taken by surprise.  We may understand the reasons or we may not.  We may consider the reasons sensible or we may find them ridiculous.  We may take the news in stride or we may be angry and upset.

If it becomes clear that your student will need more than the perceived ”normal” four years to complete his college degree, you and he will need to have a conversation.  You’ll need to make some plans that may include strategizing and altering of financial or other considerations.

Why might my college student need longer than four years to finish? 

There are many factors that might cause a student to need extra time to complete a degree.  Understanding some of the factors may help you to realize what has happened, or may help you and your student anticipate or prevent a delay. Here are a few factors that might affect your student’s time to completion of his degree.

  • Struggling with the transition to college.  Some students struggle mightily during their first semester or year of college, causing them to withdraw from or fail some classes.  These lost credits will need to be made up later.
  • Taking a light course load. Many students (and their parents) determine that they would like to take a lighter than normal course load for one or more semesters.  A student may be concerned about doing well with a heavy load, or may have outside-of-school family or work obligations.  Taking a lighter course load may make sense.  A student who consistently takes a lighter load, however, will not accumulate enough credits to graduate in four years.
  • A change of direction or major. Many students are able to change from one major to another and not lose any time toward their degree. The earlier a student changes major, the easier the change may be.  For some students, and some majors, changing major may mean adding additional courses and may mean extra time.
  • Failing or withdrawing from too many classes. A student who fails or withdraws from classes will need to make up credits and may need extra time.
  • Not keeping track of requirements. It is possible for a student to take an appropriate number of credits each semester, but fail to take certain required classes — either all college requirements, or requirements for the major.  This student may be taken by surprise when he discovers that he has missed important classes and needs to take them in order to graduate.
  • Taking time off. Some students hit a stumbling block at some point during their college years.  They may need an academic break, may encounter health issues, or may have family issues that require them to take a break.  This may mean that the four year timetable is no longer appropriate.
  • Lack of direction. Although entering college undecided about a major may be a very good thing for keeping options open, a student who takes too long to decide about a major may miss the opportunity to take certain courses in a timely sequence.  He may need extra time to take required courses or course sequences.
  • Transferring to another college. Many students transfer from one college to another and carry all of their previous credits with them.  Your student may never miss a beat during a transfer.  Other students may find that some of their credits will not transfer and that they will need extra time to make up for lost credits.
  • Completing one (or several) internships. Many employers today look for experience on candidates’ resumes.  An internship — or multiple internships —can set a student apart.  Many students are able to complete internships for credit as part of their normal course load.  Other students may decide that spending an extra semester to complete a prime internship will be worth the extra time spent as a student.
  • Study abroad. More and more students today are spending some time studying abroad.  Most students are able to study abroad and still graduate on time.  However, if the study abroad opportunity slows down your student’s progress, he will need to consider whether the life experience may be worth some extra time.
  • Completing a double major. Depending on your student’s goals, he may decide to complete a double major — combining two areas of interest.  Many students are able to complete a double major without adding extra time.  However, if your student makes a decision late, or plans to combine two complicated or complex majors, he may need extra time.  The double major may be worth the time spent.
  • Low GPA. Many colleges have a required minimum GPA (grade point average) for graduation.  If your student has struggled and is below the minimum required GPA, he may need to spend an extra semester working to raise his GPA to acceptable standards.
  • Taking extra classes. Your student may discover that there are some extra classes that will improve his marketability and/or career options.  He may decide to spend an extra semester taking important classes that will benefit him when he begins his job search.

How to increase your student’s chances of on-time graduation.

An 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. The unexpected can always happen and may change any student’s timetable.

So what, then, can you 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. 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.  Perhaps the ”five-year plan” makes more sense.
  • Your student needs to want to finish in four years. If he is unmotivated or ambivalent about finishing college and/or leaving the social world of college, he might not be anxious to be done quickly.  Some students 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 needs to do what is required in all of his coursework: go to class, do all work — on time, adhere to deadlines, work closely with his advisor, take the appropriate number of credits each semester.
  • 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 he is choosing appropriate courses in the proper sequence. Your student and his advisor should work to create a four year plan or degree map to be sure that he can accomplish everything.  Revisit and revise the plan each semester.
  • 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.
  • 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 his college career as possible. He 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 valuable.  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.  It is important to know when adding an extra semester, or year, can make it all make more sense and be more achievable. 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.

There are many factors that can affect your student’s timetable for completing his degree.  Some causes can be avoided, some can be anticipated, and some are unexpected.  As a college parent, you may have little influence over these factors.  However, understanding potential reasons, and possibly discussing them early with your student, will help everyone to remain open and flexible no matter what situation may arise.

If we remember that we want the best for our student, and that each student has different needs and abilities, we may need to adjust our thinking to include a more flexible timeline. The college experience is a phase of life, and not every student will proceed through this phase at the same rate.  It may take patience and understanding for us, as parents, to accept that our student may need more than four years to complete his college degree, but he may need our support more than ever as he finds his own path to success.

Related Posts:

The Path to Graduation: The Fast Track

When Should My College Student Choose a Major?

Helping Your Student with Goal-Setting – and Action Plans


2 thoughts on “The Path To Graduation: Will Your College Student Graduate on Time?”

  1. Great article and true statements. Another factor of why it may take longer than 4 years to obtain a bachelor’s degree is simply not going to class! Here at KnowYouGo we would love to team up with College Parent Central to let parents be aware that they can obtain college class attendance reports to motivate their child to attend class. Please contact us on how we can partner with you.


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