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Academic Strategies to Cut Costs

Updated January 13, 2016

What costs more than four years of college? Five or six years. Not only will you pay for an extra year of college, but your child will lose the income she would have earned if she’d graduated on time. Does five or six years of college seem improbable? It isn’t.

As I’ve mentioned previously in this guide, college students who graduate in four years are in the minority.  A study conducted by The National Student Clearinghouse followed students who began college in 2008 and tracked them through all schools they attended. By 2014, six years later, approximately half of the students who began at a four year public college had completed their degree at the first institution and another 9.5% had graduated from another school. That means only 59.5% of students who started at a public college graduated within six years of starting.

Students who began at four year private schools did somewhat better; about 60% graduated from their first school and another 11% from a different one.  But still - this means only 71% had graduated after six years - a full two years beyond what most people consider the normal time to graduate. 

These are sobering statistics. What can you do to improve the odds that your child will graduate in four years? Encourage him to do the following things.

Take Rigorous Courses in High School and Work Hard

Research shows that good students are more likely to graduate on time.  A National Center for Education Statistics study that tracked the academic progress of students who began at a four year institution in 1995 found that a mere 37% graduated within four years and only 63% did so within six years. However, students who had earned mostly A’s in high school or taken two or more AP tests  had much higher graduation rates: 55% graduated within four years and 80% within six.

This is just common sense. Students who've taken rigorous courses and done well are more likely to be successful in college than those who haven't. So make sure your teen is taking challenging, college preparatory courses. Meeting the minimum course requirements to graduate high school will not necessarily prepare a student for college level work.

Start Earning College Credits in High School

Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate (IB), and dual enrollment are three types of college level courses that students can take in high school to begin accumulating college credit. Indeed, top students can potentially enter college with a year and a half or more of college credit, which gives them the option of graduating in three years, earning a double major, or even a master’s degree in their four years. However, be aware that students taking AP and IB courses need to score well on an externally graded exam to earn college credit. Also, each college establishes its own policy about awarding credit, so ask about it on your college visits.

Choose a College with a High Four Year Graduation Rate

In general, the more selective a college is, the higher its four year graduation rate. This stands to reason. Outstanding students are the ones most likely to succeed in college and graduate on time. However, even among colleges with fairly comparable student bodies, some have a substantially higher four year graduation rate than their peer institutions, which suggests that there is something about the college that promotes timely graduation. To find these colleges, check out this outstanding interactive website:www.collegeresults.org. In addition to telling you the four and six year graduation rate for any college you search, it will also construct a comparison group of similar institutions to let you see whether the school does a good job of graduating students on time relative to its peer schools.

Choose a College That's a Good Match

Another potential pitfall that can delay a student's path to a degree is transferring, and it's surprisingly common. The National Student Clearinghouse analyzed enrollment patterns "of virtually all students who began postsecondary education in the U.S. in fall 2006" and found that about a third of students who began at a four year institution in 2006 had transferred to another school by 2011. To avoid having your daughter become a transfer student, help her do a thorough job of researching colleges. Make sure that all the schools she applies to, including her safety schools, are a good match for her academic interests, learning style, and lifestyle choices – and are affordable.

Review College Graduation Requirements Early

As soon as your son decides which college to attend, investigate its graduation requirements in the course catalog. Why so early? Because most colleges have some type of general education requirements. For example, students may need to complete a few courses in each of several broad areas, such as 3 courses from math and science, 3 from the humanities and 3 from the social sciences. Some schools also require specific writing courses and proficiency in a foreign language.

However, students may be able to place out of some requirements by earning a qualifying score on an SAT Subject Test or AP test. Here’s where it helps to check requirements early. If your son’s college allows him to fulfill his foreign language requirement by scoring a 600 on the SAT Subject Test, it would be worth his while to take the test at the end of senior year. Doing so could save him from having to take anywhere from one to four semesters of a foreign language in college.

Make a Four Year Plan

In addition to fulfilling general education requirements, college students need to complete the requirements for their major. This may not be as simple as it seems. Some courses are not offered every semester, or even every year, and others must be taken in a particular sequence.  Bottom line: to ensure that your child can meet all major requirements in four years, sit down with her and plan when she will take them.

Sometimes spending an extra semester or year in college is unavoidable. If your daughter starts out planning to major in Norwegian folklore and later switches to aeronautical engineering, it’s a good bet she’ll take longer than four years to earn her degree. But many of the circumstances that cause students to delay graduating are avoidable.

Finally, stay tuned in to your son or daughter’s academic progress in college – from a distance. One of the best things about being the parent of a college student is not knowing that there’s a test or paper due tomorrow. It’s entirely appropriate – and welcome – to let your college-aged daughter take charge of her own day-to-day academic responsibilities, but make sure to check with her on a regular basis to make sure she is progressing toward a four year degree.

Four years of college is expensive enough. Invest the time and effort to avoid paying for even more.

 

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