How to Finish College in 4 Years: What Parents Need to Know

Imagine sitting in the audience at your daughter’s high school graduation, your heartbeat accelerating as the alphabetical roll call draws ever closer to your family’s last name. To her right and left you see her classmates, beaming with joyous self-confidence. Now, fast forward a few months to the fall semester of freshman year. Some of these graduating high school seniors will begin to stumble and wonder how to finish college during four years.

How to finish college in four years

How to Graduate from College in 4 Years

Failing at college can stunt a student’s academic and professional progress at the inception of their young adult lives and create substantial financial and emotional obstacles. For students who struggle, their challenges are both intensely personal and also contribute to a national social problem.

The Problem

Complete College America published Four Year Myth, (November, 2014) which outlined these alarming statistics:

  • At public universities, only 19% of full-time students graduate in four years.
  • At flagship or research universities, only 36% of full-time students graduate in four years.
  • Each additional year of college costs $22,826 for tuition (in state), room, board, and fees plus an additional $45,327 in lost wages bringing the total to $68,153.
  • Only 50 out of 580 public 4-year colleges and universities report that the majority of full-time students graduate in four years.

Student debt now totals $1.52 trillion, a gigantic sum, inflated by the extra year or two of classes added by so many students. It is no wonder that state governments and college administrators have targeted low graduation rates as a grave risk to the education and well-being of their populations. In a recent university-wide email, Chancellor of the University of Texas System, William H. McRaven, could not have been more emphatic:

To me, the smartest, most effective thing we can do to reduce our students’ debt burden is to increase our four-year graduation rates. Common sense tells us that earning a degree in five years is going to cost you roughly 25 percent more than earning it in four. Imagine the uproar if any UT System school increased tuition by 25 percent! But the effect is the same.

I won’t sugarcoat the fact that UT institutions’ four-year graduation rates are too low, across the board. Getting a better understanding of what’s driving that problem and what we can do to fix it is one of my top priorities as Chancellor.

Why Does it Take Longer to Graduate than 4 Years?

Lack of planning

Have you looked at a college course catalogue recently? It is easy to get lost as you toggle between hundreds of individual courses in dozens of subjects. With the absence of a game plan for a major or lack of strategy for completing core course requirements, it is a common pitfall to sign up for superfluous classes that won’t count toward the required course-work for a degree. In fact, the average graduate earns up to 134 credits when only 120 are required.

Lack of advising

Meeting with a college counselor before registration can be a safety net for students to help them fully understand the implications of their choices. But understanding course scheduling intricacies requires reading the fine print. Some classes only offered in the spring? Prerequisites that need to be taken before electives can be added? The learning curve for course selection is a steep one and freshmen can easily get thrown off.

Bottleneck of key courses

Some degree plans at colleges are so popular that the number of seats in the gateway course(s) for the majors do not match the demand. Students who are unable to secure space in the classroom cannot create an optimal schedule to accumulate the required major courses.

Part-time or reduced load

To graduate in four years, students need to take 15 hours each semester for eight semesters, adding up to the 120 hours that result in a diploma. Some students have work or family responsibilities that make it impossible to attend school full-time, almost guaranteeing that they will need to tack on extra semesters to get their diploma.

Transferring schools and losing credits

Unfortunately, even after long months of work leading up to a college admission decision, a student may decide they need to transfer to a different school. Schools have their own policies about accepting transfer credits and some may fall through the cracks when a student moves from one college to another.

Remedial, non-credit, courses

Some students are not ready to tackle the academic demands of college coursework and may be placed into remedial classes that offer no course credit.

Are all students vulnerable?

Teenagers who are academically prepared, who enroll full-time right out of high school, who come from an upper income family and whose parents attended college, statistically, have the best odds for completing a degree. But a great percentage of students struggle, and Jordan Weissmann, Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent, sums up the problem: 

We have a higher education system that works fairly well for the traditional college student—the teenager who shows up on campus ready to dedicate the next four to six years of their lives to school. But a very, very large chunk of American undergraduates don’t fit that profile. They’re older, juggling classes and a job or family, and not necessarily up to speed academically. Our education system isn’t built to cater to their needs, and its results are extremely wasteful.

The dreams for college, a career and future prosperity that give rise to the buoyancy at high school graduation can all too easily be replaced by the diminished reality of a job with low-paying wages, lack of advancement, and sizable debt on which drop-outs are more likely to default, according to Weissmann.

What Can Colleges Do to Help Students Get on a 4-year plan?

At the University of Texas, outgoing President William Powers, Jr. drew a line in the sand in 2012 declaring that the then 4-year graduation rate of 52% was unacceptable. His stated goal was to increase the rate to 70% within four year’s time, by 2016.

Programs put in place at UT outlined in The New York Times, “Who Gets to Graduate,” have begun to show results with graduation rates inching to 55% and retention rates from freshman to sophomore year growing from 93.6 to 94.6%.

We wanted to learn more about what was succeeding at UT and discover any lessons for parents of high school and college students. We spoke with Dr. Randy Diehl, psychology professor, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and former Chair of the University’s Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates:

1. GF: What are the most strategic things that students should do to graduate in four years?

RD: 1. Top of the list is to meet regularly with an academic advisor and to develop a plan. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind or in coming to college undecided. But there should be a plan about how you move toward choosing a major and it involves discovering what your interests are and what courses are appropriate to take to explore those interests. At many institutions there are peer mentors who are juniors and seniors and who can provide some good guidance in an informal way that the student may find less intimidating than meeting with a professor.

2. It starts in high school when students are able to choose Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes which can make a huge difference because students can come in with quite a lot of college credit and it gives them a bit more flexibility in choosing a major. It is a great way to get ahead of the game and helps prepare students to choose a major because you are already being exposed to college type courses.

3. If you pick a major second year, take core courses during freshman year to keep on track so that when you choose a major you have already covered the basic courses. 4. Every college has a career services center and is a very important office but most students don’t take advantage of it. By visiting and getting to know the staff you begin to know what kind of skills they can help you with. Visit there early and often!

2.GF: You have spoken about UT’s recent success in helping kids graduate on time. What has the University implemented to achieve this success?

RD: The school started at 52% of kids graduating in 4 years 3 ½ years ago and we are well on our way toward achieving the 70% goal. The first year retention rate is a huge predictor because if students drop out or are academically dismissed, it is due to failure during first year. Students who enter college from lower socio-economic levels, who are the first generation to study at college, who attended high schools that did not stress college preparation, or are in ethnic minority groups, have predictors of challenge and are considered “at risk.”

These students are provided more intensive academic advising, more peer mentoring and are placed in somewhat smaller sections so they can get more one-on-one from the professor. We created programs based on building confidence, learning how to succeed, and created a chance for students to develop a sense of belonging. First year retention rates of “at-risk” students were 35% and are now 92%.

3. GF: When families are looking at colleges with their juniors, are there services or programs that they should seek out that could help their student graduate on time? Conversely, what are some red flags?

RD: It is important that students have a reasonably realistic understanding of what is expected to succeed at any given college or university. If students can visit colleges, it would be good to try to visit the office of admissions and talk to one of the staff people. Most colleges and universities do not post their 4-year graduation rates on their websites if they have relatively low numbers to report. But the office of admissions will have that and they can be investigated online, too. You want to know how committed an institution is to student success.

Student success is not just the 4-year graduation rate. A lot of things go into it. You want to look at various indicators such as the number of credit hours students are taking each semester. If they are not high, it suggests there are a lot of part-time students and that is not a healthy indicator.

4. GF: Are there things that high school kids can do before they leave for school to boost their chances of success in college?

In addition to taking AP and IB classes that I have already mentioned, freshmen and sophomores can start to look at different institutions and try to figure out what they are interested in doing in college. Would they would like to go to a small liberal arts school, a program that focuses on great books, a large private or state university, do they want access to distinguished researchers – these are all things they can begin to explore.

5.GF: Are there ways that parents can and should get involved to help their college student stay on track?

RD: It is excellent for parents to be interested in their kids’ higher education and to project that interest. If they care about the college experience for their kids, the kids are more likely to care, too. I don’t advocate extreme behavior of parents doing what the students should be doing for themselves because an important part of the college education is growing up and taking responsibility. But parents can be there when it is time to visit colleges and give advice about visiting the career services center.

Parents can recommend that kids take an extra AP course in high school and set the tone. Studies have shown that some of the at-risk students have parents who might say “you won’t do well in college.” When parents are supportive of their student’s career and college aspirations, it is a positive and powerful thing.

6. GF: Do students have time to take internships and/or study abroad and still graduate in four years?

RD: Yes! We did studies of graduation rates for both UT and nationally and the data are consistent in showing that students are more likely to graduate in four years if they study abroad, take internships and/or get involved in undergraduate research. There is no doubt that there is a correlation with these activities and stronger students.

However, in addition to having higher four-year graduation rates, their GPAs were higher and individual students did better after study abroad than before. The idea is that the more a student feels that she belongs to group and to the college, the better she will do academically. Social and academic integration are powerful predictors of success.

Photo Credit: Larry D. Moore

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