MONEY College

Taking Five Years to Earn a B.A. is Common—And Costly. Here’s How To Get Out in Four

Stressing out about how you’ll pay for four years of college? You should be so lucky. Most students take five to six years to earn an undergraduate degree, the Department of Education reports. That adds about $35,000 to the sticker price of attending a typical in-state public university and much more to the cost of most private colleges.

These moves will help your child get to the finish line in four years.

Pick a Supportive School

Colleges with much-better-than-average graduation rates—look for 50% and up at public colleges, 70% at private schools—often have adopted strategies to help students finish in four years, says Tom Sugar of Complete College America, which works to boost the number of Americans with degrees. Among them: capping graduation requirements for most majors at 120 credit hours; making sure students aren’t crowded out of required courses; and identifying kids in danger of falling behind early on and assigning advisers to help them. Still unproved are the graduation “guarantees” that a growing number of schools offer—essentially, if your kid doesn’t earn a degree in four years, the remaining tuition is on us. Be skeptical, Sugar says.

To identify schools with superior track records, search for your target college’s four-year grad rate at collegeresults.org. Then hit the “similar colleges” tab to find competitors with better outcomes. (A list of graduation rates at the country’s largest schools is at right.)

Don’t Lighten the Load

Your student’s first college math lesson: Divide the 120 credits typically required for graduation into eight academic semesters, and he’ll see that he needs to take at least 15 credits per semester, not the minimum 12 usually allowed. To make sure Junior has plenty of time for academics, have him limit jobs to 12 hours or less a week. Changing majors, which can involve a new set of required courses, may also set a student back. A possible solution: Go with a related major that will accept many of his existing credits.

Get Back on Track Cheaply

If a change of major or overcrowded courses threaten to delay graduation, your child may be able to fulfill requirements by taking summer or community college classes or a growing number of accredited online tests and courses. Hundreds of colleges give credit for passing grades on the College Board’s 33 College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests or the competing DSST’s 38 exams. Cost: $80 per test. Traditional colleges have been slow to grant credit for online or alternative tests or courses, so students should check with their registrar and department head before committing time or money to an off-campus class.

 

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