On-time graduation is important, but it is relative. For many college students, “on time” means four years to complete their degree. However, other students (a growing majority in this country) need five or even six years to graduate. There are many factors that can affect your student’s possible need for extra time. You and your student should decide together, what makes sense for them.
Three important tools for keeping track
One of the keys to graduating in whatever time-frame your student has planned is keeping track of their progress. Unfortunately, many students randomly take courses, or blindly accept the advice of others, without any understanding of why they are taking certain courses or what they need to do to complete their degree. Your student should listen to the advice they receive, but should be able to weigh it based on their own understanding of requirements.
So how does your student find out what they need to do? There are three tools available at most colleges that can help. Your student should learn early in their college career what is available and consult these tools often.
The college catalog – Each school publishes a college catalog. Some schools continue to publish hard copy catalogs, but many now provide their catalogs on their website. The catalog contains a wealth of information for students (and their parents), often including the history of the institution, admission information, facilities, student life information, services, academic programs, degrees offered, graduation requirements and all courses offered. Students who want to keep track of their progress should carefully study academic policies and graduation requirements. It is essential that your student know what needs to be done to graduate.
The degree map – Many colleges now provide students with a degree map or plan for graduation. A degree map is a semester by semester list of courses which a student needs to take in order to graduate on time. Sometimes called a major map, it suggests courses to complete each semester in order to be “on track” to graduation by taking the right courses in the right order. One of the important things that a degree map can show a student is a progression or sequence of courses, some of which may have pre-requisites. Of course, a map provides a plan and sometimes there are valid reasons for veering from an initial plan. Your student should use the degree map as a guide and make necessary adjustments as necessary in consultation with an academic advisor.
The degree audit – A degree audit is an analysis of your student’s academic progress toward a degree. It helps your student monitor where they are and what still needs to be done to complete requirements. The degree audit is usually computer generated and maintained by the Registrar’s Office, but an unofficial version may be available to students online. The audit is an important planning tool to help your student keep track of academic progress. Your student should consult their audit once each semester – usually when planning a course schedule for the following semester.
What information should your student find?
As your student progresses through their college career, they will learn more about the curriculum and requirements and be better able to determine what they need to do. Consulting the three sources above will help your student get a head start and will help requirements become more clear over time. But what information should your student be seeking? For students at most colleges, requirements fall into four or five areas.
- Students must complete a required number of credits or units to graduate. This is often about 120 credits, but may vary by institution.
- Students must complete a certain number of all-college credits, courses, or requirements. These are courses that all students are required to take no matter what their major and are sometimes called General Education or Distribution classes.
- Students must complete all requirements for their major.
- Students must usually complete their degree “in good standing” with a required minimum GPA (grade point average). This may vary by institution or by major.
- Some colleges have additional requirements such as completing an internship or community service experience. Students should be clear about any such requirements.
Three questions that can help
Your student should ask, at least once each semester, “Am I on track to graduate?” What new information does your student have now, one semester since they previously asked this question?
It may be helpful for your student to break this “on track” question down into three separate components. It will be less overwhelming to determine the answer.
- Am I on track with my all-college or general education requirements? By consulting the catalog and degree audit, your student should be able to see progress toward completing these requirements. If your student isn’t sure, they should consult an academic advisor.
- Am I on track in my major? Each major is different. Some require many credits and careful sequencing of courses. Some majors have additional requirements such as labs, internships, or clinical experiences. Other majors may require fewer credits with much more freedom of choice in classes. It is important that your student know what their department requires.
- Am I on track with my GPA? It is important that your student begin early in their college career to track, and protect, their GPA. They should remember that this is an average of all grades. Early in their career, with fewer grades to average, one good (or poor) grade can make a significant change in GPA. As your student accumulates many grades over several years, each individual grade will move the needle less (in either direction). If your student does not pay attention to their GPA in the early years, and it is weak, it is going to be more difficult to pull it up later. Students may complete all other requirements for graduation, but if their GPA is sub-par, they cannot graduate and will need to take additional courses, and do well, to pull it up to the required level.
Students who begin early in their college career to use the information provided by the college, to track their progress, and to ask important questions when they are unsure, are much less likely to have difficulty staying on track and graduating in their anticipated timeframe. Encourage your student to be proactive and “in the know” to ensure that they will be receiving a diploma as planned.