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 (NCES) claims that only about 40 percent of students graduate from college in four years.

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. A fifth year could boost the total cost by about 25 percent.

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 1999-2000 bachelor’s degree recipients and compared them with 1992-1993 recipients. The results are as follows:

• Graduates of public, four-year institutions in 1999-2000 completed their bachelor’s degrees in 4.8 years on average compared with 5.3 years for 1992-1993 graduates.
• At private, not-for-profit institutions, bachelor’s degree recipients in 1999-2000 took 4.3 years to complete their degrees compared with 5.0 years for 1992-1993 graduates.

While the good news is that the time to graduation declined, the bad news is that the average student still took more than four years to complete a degree.

Alarmingly, some students took much longer. A separate study by the NCES monitored students over a six-year time frame. Overall, only 51 percent of undergraduates who began in 1995-1996 had attained a degree or certificate six years later. An additional 14 percent were still enrolled after six years.

Why more than four years?

A number of reasons explain the delay:

• On a positive note, students are taking time off to work to help finance their education. Depending on a student’s commitment, the actual time in school could still be only four years spread over, for example, a five-year period that includes time off to work.
• Another scenario is that the student is working while attending college. According to the demands of the job and the course of study, the student may take a slightly lower course load each semester, say, twelve credit hours instead of fifteen, to balance school 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.
• 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.
• 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 over 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.
• Other factors include needing to take remedial courses and desiring to protect one’s grade point average (GPA). If the student’s skills and education are not completely adequate for college-level work, remedial courses may be needed. This adds to the overall course load and could extend the time to graduation. Furthermore, to maintain a high GPA, a student may take a lighter course load, putting more time into classes to achieve better grades.
• 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 often find another class to take that will fulfill the same requirement.
• Unfortunately, popular courses may be prerequisites for some students that must be completed before they can take more advanced classes in their majors. A student who doesn’t get into a required course should sign up for the class waiting list. This will allow enrollment once other students drop the course. If a student gets shut out of a required class, see an advisor. The solution may be as easy as rearranging the course schedule. Registering for classes as early as possible is the best way to ensure getting into desired courses.

What can parents do?

Parents should honestly evaluate the likelihood that a child will graduate in four years. Is this person a good student who works hard in school and is serious about an education? How clearly defined are the students goals?

Parents should determine how many credits are needed to take each semester to graduate in four years and make sure the child takes that course load. If this isn’t happening, parents must find out why and adjust their financial plan accordingly.

If a student falls behind, taking a few summer school classes could remedy the situation. The cost for summer classes is often much lower than the price for a regular term, although summer boarding at a school can be expensive. As an option, your child can live at home during the summer and take courses at a neaby two- or four-year college. However, students should check with an advisor at their school to see which courses and how many credits will transfer.

Planning ahead and monitoring your child’s progress is the best way to make sure that school goes smoothly. Overtime may make a basketball game more exciting, but it’s the last thing parents want to see for their child’s college education.

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