14 Ways to Ensure You Graduate in Four Years

The average time to get a degree at a four-year college is about five years.

College seems to be taking longer and longer to get through.  The average time to get a degree at the (so-called) four-year college hovers at about five years, with only one-third of students graduating in four years and another third taking six or more years to finish.  The situation at community colleges is no better:  Only fifty-percent of students graduate within two to four years, while a full quarter take more than four years to complete their Associate degree.  All those extra years cost money and delay your entry into the work force.  It’s not all that hard, though, to complete your program in the traditional four or two years if you follow our fourteen tips for getting college done on time:

#1 Make a financial plan.  With the sticker price of a private college running upwards of $40,000 a year, and a state school coming in at about $10,000, it’s important to have a firm conception about how you’re going to pay for your four years.  What combination of gift aid, loans, parental help, and off- or on-campus employment is going to net the amount you need to pay for tuition and room and board?   You wouldn’t want to, or have to, take time off from college just because you were short on funds.  Besides, realizing how much each year of college is really costing you can be a great motivator in getting you to complete your work in a timely fashion.

#2 Assess the value of outside employment.  Needless to say, given the current economic conditions many students have to work part or full-time just to make ends meet.  But if you can at all swing it, it’s much more time-efficient – and often more financially advantageous – to put all your efforts into finishing your coursework so that you can quickly land that real job with a real salary.  Balance off the amount you’re going to make from that part-time job with the cost of another year of college.

#3 Consider loans.  Even if you didn’t take out any loans when you started college, it could be a good idea to borrow money at later stages of your college career.  Do the math and see if it’s a good idea to take out small loans now if it means you could get a good job next year – as opposed to two or three years later.  Knowing about the job prospects in your major – and how much they pay – will be instrumental in your assessment.

Extra Pointer:  In some cases you might be able to land a “completion loan” from your parents or some other relative:  You promise you’ll finish this year and they’ll lend you the money.

#4 Apply for scholarships and prizes.  At many universities there are a surprising number of scholarships, awards and prizes reserved for continuing and upper-class students.  Check out your major department, study abroad office, non-traditional students or veteran’s office, honors college, or general university financial aid office for details.  Often the fellowships are very fine-grained (for instance, for students studying ancient Greek, or food security and economic growth), so, if you fit the bill, it can be easy to win.

Extra Pointer:  You might also consider fellowships from sources outside your school.  www.scholarshipmonkey.com is an excellent source for upper class fellowships.

#5 Get what’s coming to you.  If you’ve taken AP courses, or an IB (international baccalaureate) program, cash in your chips:  Apply to have these credited to the degree you’re working on.  Also, consider taking one of the 33 CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exams, if you’re especially strong in some field and your college accepts these exams for credit.  And if your college allows credit for life experience (for instance, work experience, summer internships, or, believe it or not, political campaigning), claim these, too.

#6 Fight for your transfer credits.  If your current college isn’t your first one, make sure you get at least distribution (or core or general-education) credit for the work you’ve done (in some cases, you won’t be able to get credit in your major, since the faculty want you to take those courses at their school).   Usually, this will go through pretty smoothly, especially when there are “articulation agreements.”  But even if your courses don’t automatically transfer, don’t give up hope.  Most schools have appeal procedures that you should use.  What do you have to lose?

#7 Consider the “eight-semester plan.”  Many colleges now offer you the option of contracting for a prepackaged program of courses in exchange for guaranteed places in each of them.  If you’re 100-percent sure what major you want, the eight semester plan can facilitate your finishing in four years.  The downside?  You have to commit to a major before having taken any college-level courses in that field, you must take the courses in the order prescribed and you have to stick to the letter of the program (no room to drop a course or to change your major).

#8 Don’t set yourself back.  In sequences of courses aimed at developing skills – world languages and math, for example – many students have the strong inclination to start again at the very beginning – even if their placement test shows that they should enroll in a more advanced course.  “After all,” they figure, “what’s the harm, and I’ll learn it better this time.”  But there’s a hidden cost.  If you start the sequence again, you’re signing on to extra, unnecessary courses and buying yourself more time in college.  Not a good idea, if you’re planning to finish in four years.

#9 Don’t be a serial dropper or adder.  If you drop a class in the twelfth week, you’ve wasted a ton of time and have no credits to show for it.  Avoid this situation either by bailing out when there’s still time to add a replacement course, or by more carefully researching your choices when you first sign up.

#10 Don’t double (or triple) major.  If you’re serious about getting out in four years, you should stick with one major.  Each additional major increases your requirements to the tune of between 10 and 12 courses.  Since the standard course load is between 8 and 10 courses a year, you don’t have to be a statistics whiz to see how many years additional majors can add to your time-to-degree.

#11 Don’t fail a requirement.  If you’re in danger of getting the dreaded “F” in a required course, take emergency action to be sure you pass the course.  Have a serious talk with the professor to find out what you need to do to pass the class, and then follow the instructions exactly.  If you can take out a D (or in some schools a C), you won’t have to retake the requirement and delay your progress.

#12 Use the summers.  Summer is a great time to get in some extra courses and build up some added speed toward completion of your degree.  Not going to be hanging around your college over the summer?  No problem.  Consider gaining credits through online courses or credited internships or job experiences.

#13 Keep on top of your degree-progress.  Many students have their degree delayed after discovering there were requirements they didn’t know about. Check in with an adviser regularly to make sure you’re on track and haven’t overlooked any of the more obscure requirements.  Many schools have online checklists or on-line degree planners.  Use these and make sure you read the fine print (including any footnotes at the bottom of the page, which can be more important than they might look at first glance – especially when yours is the exception treated in the note).

#14 Consider a 5-year dual degree program. One really time-efficient plan is to do a five-year combined BA/MA degree, which will save you at least a year or two of MA training.  You can get these combined degrees is many fields, including economics, public policy, public health, engineering, and world languages.  Also, some schools offer combined professional degrees, such as a BA/DDS plan (dentistry) and a BA/JD (law) . OK, it’s not 4 years, but it’s a really fast track into fields that require advanced degrees.

This post was provided by, Professors Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Syman, who wrote the book, The Secrets of College Success. If you have further questions on this topic or ideas, please email them at jeremy@professorsguide.com or follow them on Twitter @professorsguide. Professor Jeremy S. Syman was a guest on College Smart Radio on November 24, 2012

Listen to this broadcast on YouTube: Part 1Part 2.

Photo Credit: stevendepolo

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