Why College Often Lasts More Than 4 Years

Most families preparing to send their children off to school plan under the assumption that college lasts only four years. After all, we only have the class designations freshman, sophomore, junior and senior. Financial aid is awarded on a four-year basis. And we use the term “four-year institution” to describe schools that award Bachelor’s degrees.

Unfortunately, the reality is that many students end up having to complete a fifth year or more in order to finish their Bachelor’s degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 59% of full-time undergraduate students at 4-year institutions graduate within 6 years. That’s right: 6 years, not 4!

So what are some of the major causes of this prolongation of the college experience? And what are ways in which you can avoid it?

One reason why many students have to complete an extra year or two of college is poor academic advising. Undergraduates are matched up with a designated administrator or professor who is supposed to guide them through their degree requirements. What often happens, however, is that their “mentor” has too many other obligations and does not have the time, desire, or perhaps energy to pay attention to such details. The student is then left to guess which classes fulfill their major and distribution requirements, which then often leads them to miss the 4-year graduation mark.

Related to the previous reason, another cause of undergraduates not finishing on time is a lack of support systems on campus. These come in the form of tutors, mental health professionals, doctors, resident advisors, student life deans, etc. When selecting a college, it is thus important to ensure that the school provides its students with such services. Otherwise, they may find themselves in trouble at some point and without a safety net.

Another reason why students take more than 4 years to graduate is that they get so wrapped up in the exciting social scene offered by their college that they forget that they are first and foremost students. They slack off, either failing classes or not taking enough each semester – after all, their parents are no longer standing over top of them telling them to do their homework – and they wind up not graduating on time.

A fourth reason why students take extra time to finish their degree revolves around financial constraints. College can be a very expensive investment, costing up to $70,000 per year, which has led to a huge national debate about rising tuition costs and the student debt crisis. Unfortunately, students who enter a university from an underprivileged socioeconomic background have a much harder time adjusting to the hidden costs of a college education, namely the ones that administrators don’t quote in their sticker price. These students then end up having to take on part-time or even full-time jobs, while working towards their degrees, often getting bogged down or distracted by the obligations imposed by their employers.

A final, major reason why students do not graduate on time is that they simply are not ready for college. Perhaps they need to take off some time to mature, to fight burn out, or to explore other interests. Unfortunately, American culture places such a heavy emphasis on going to college directly right after high school, that many students don’t consider the benefit of taking a gap year. This type of opportunity, which allows young adults to step off the treadmill and gain perspective by having other, non-academic experiences, would actually prevent some students from taking a year off during college or even dropping out altogether.

While it is very difficult to ascribe universal fault to any one of the aforementioned reasons, it is important for students to be as proactive as possible in ensuring that they graduate on time.

If a student finds an academic advisor to be AWOL or uninterested, he or she should immediately seek a new one as well as speak to a high level administrator who can address the problem. There is so little professional accountability within colleges with regard to advising that students really need to be their own advocates.

If a student is having other sorts of issues, be they health or academically-related, they need to seek out assistance within the university or through friends and family as soon as possible. They longer they wait to resolve a problem, the worse it will only get.

If you believe your child is having too much fun at school, which you can usually easily diagnose through poor grades and/or a worn appearance, intervene! College kids may legally be adults, but you never stop being their parent.

If costs are driving a student to shift focus from studying to earning money to pay for school, that student needs to speak with a trusted advisor on campus, be it a professor, a resident advisor, a dean, or whomever. The sooner they reach out for help, the sooner they will get it.

Finally, if a student seems like they will squander their college experience because they are simply not ready, urge them to take a gap year. No one will fault them for this and colleges actually love it when students take structured time off before enrolling in school. They come to campus more mature and focused than many of their peers who started their education “on time.”

Whatever the factors may be at your child’s school, don’t let them interfere with graduating within 4 years. If you do, it could cost your family both a lot of time and money.

Posted on March 28, 2014 at 9:35 am

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