When many parents prepare for financing a child’s college education, they base their plan on the expectation that their child will graduate in four years. However, often the time to graduation is longer. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics claims that 59 percent of first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in fall 2007 completed the degree at that institution by 2013, six years later. The NCES is consistently tracking six-year rates to determine success at obtaining a degree.

OT? Oh no!

Overtime (OT) in college translates to a very different financial ball game. It means a significantly higher total cost for a college education. According to the Four-Year Myth published by Complete College America (November 2014) each additional year of college costs $22,826 in tuition, room, board, and fees, and it represents a loss of about $45,327 in lost wages.

Exactly how much longer than four years?

While each student is obviously unique, certain statistics can still provide useful parameters as parents evaluate their child’s potential time to graduation. NCES examined 2007-2013 bachelor’s degree recipients. The results are as follows:

• Fifty-eight percent of graduates of public, four-year institutions in 2012-2013 completed their bachelor’s degrees in 6 years.
• At private, not-for-profit institutions, 65% received bachelor’s degree in six years.
• For those students attending for-profit private institutions, 32 percent graduated in six years.
• The six-year graduation rate at both public and private colleges was 56 percent for males and 62 percent for females.

Fewer college students today are completing college in four years than was the case a decade ago, according to a national study released in 2016 by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. At most public universities, only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, according to the Four-Year Myth report.

Why more than four years?

A number of reasons explain the delay:

Student preparedness

Not every student enters college prepared to take college level courses. The Four Year Myth states that 1.7 million students each year begin college in remediation. This includes more than 50 percent of two-year students studying for an Associate’s Degree.

Course and credit sign ups

Many full-time students are not taking the 15 credits per semester required to graduate in four years. Also, some colleges require additional credits to the total of 120 to graduate in certain majors.

Work-study balance

Students who work while attending college may not take a full course load, opting for just enough to maintain full-time student status, but not enough to graduate in four years. Seventy-five percent of students are juggling school, family obligations, and work. Families must weigh the cost of additional time in school (and the potential benefits of the work experience) versus the amount of money the student can earn to help finance his or her education. Some students actually manage to work and take a full course load.

Not all credits transfer

Another reason for the delay is that many students are switching schools. In the NCES survey of 1999-2000 bachelor’s degree recipients, 59 percent reported attending more than one institution during their undergraduate education. Of students who attended three institutions, 48 percent completed their degree within six years. Of students who attended two institutions, 70 percent graduated within six years, and 92 percent of students who attended a single institution finished within that time. These figures emphasize the importance of choosing a school carefully the first time to minimize the likelihood that the student will need to transfer.

Major dilemmas

Teenagers often don’t know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. A student may go into college with a declared major of statistics and realize after taking introductory classes in the subject and a couple of electives that her passion is actually environmental science. The National Research Center for College and University Admissions estimates that more than half of students switch majors at least once. Changing majors late in their college careers or numerous times can cause students to fall behind schedule when it comes to completing required courses.

Required but not available

Another potential factor is the possibility of being shut out of popular or required courses. The most popular general-education classes often fill up shortly after registration begins. Entry into classes is based on seniority, so upperclassmen fill the available spots and freshmen and sophomores can be left out in the cold.

If a general-education course is full, however, students can sometimes find another class to take that will fulfill the same requirement. However, many courses may be prerequisites that must be completed before the student can take more advanced classes in their majors. If they cannot maneuver their way into prerequisites early enough, it may throw off their schedule for multiple semesters, pushing the possibility of a graduation in four years to closer to six.

Help the student and the financing situation

• While still in high school, a student can consider taking Advanced Placement classes. Scoring a 4 or 5 (and sometimes even a 3) on the AP test can earn college credit before high school graduation.
• Register your child in dual credit classes in high school. Some community colleges even offer free tuition for high school students.
• Many colleges and universities offer deeply discounted pre-college programs that not only introduce students to college-level course work, but earn credit.
• Encourage your child to discuss college course selections with an adviser before registering for classes and ask them to be realistic about their class choices. There are a lot of interesting and many fun classes in college that may widen your child’s knowledge base and enhance their college experience. However, they are unlikely to reduce the student’s time at school.
• Students can take core subjects such as English and math at community colleges or four-year colleges that allow them to live at home during the summer to earn transferrable credit at a greatly reduced price. Do make sure the classes will transfer, however.
• Add the summer semester into the four-year plan. It’s often a way to get the prerequisites that many students get locked out of during fall and spring; also summer credits are less expensive at some schools than regular-term credits.

Planning ahead and monitoring your child’s progress is the best way to make sure that school goes smoothly — and financing can be better controlled. Overtime may make a basketball game more exciting, but it’s often the last thing parents want to see for their child’s college education when they are the ones paying for it.

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