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Academic Strategies to Cut Costs

Updated 5/21/2024

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. 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 

Education research - and common sense - tell us that good students are more likely to graduate on time. 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. This credit can be used to graduate in three years, earn 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. Even taking that into account, you may be stunned to learn how low the graduation rates are at many colleges. To find this information, go to College Navigator (a government-sponsored website), search for your college, and when you get its profile, click on the Retention and Graduation tab. It will tell you the six-year graduation rate (labelled as graduation rate within 150% of expected time) and below that, the four-year graduation rate. Be aware that some search engines simply list "graduation rate" for colleges without saying whether the rate refers to the four or six-year rate. Consequently, if you harbor hopes of your son graduating from college in four years, I strongly recommend consulting College Navigator and choosing a college where he wouldn't be the exception.

Choose a College That's a Good Match

Another potential pitfall that can delay a student's path to a degree is transferring from one college to another. To avoid having this happen to your child, 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 AP test.

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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