Six Years to Graduation? Why Students Don’t Graduate on Time

University of RochesterWhile most of us think of college as a four year experience, five or six years to graduation has become more typical. When entering college nine of ten students believe they will finish their bachelors in four years. It turns out these predictions are overly optimistic as just over half of students who enter college graduate within six years. Adding just an extra semester can add thousands of dollars to the cost of college. Late graduation is a problem even for students on scholarships. Most merit scholarships only run for eight semesters or four years. Time to graduation is something to consider when comparing college costs. Understanding the key factors that delay graduation will help you evaluate your child’s risks.

Changing Majors
The typical student enters college undecided about their major. Many change their majors two or three times. If students concentrate on completing general education requirements in the first year and the changes happen early in college this may not slow the student down too much. If a student changes their major later in college, they can significantly delay their graduation. Some changes in major are ill advised and students may benefit from the requirement that they just finish up. In other situations, an extra semester or two may open up doors. For example, sometimes a student will discover in junior year that they are interested in a career in medicine and they realize they need extra time to take required courses for medical school. Long term this may be a worthwhile investment.

Academic Weaknesses
Entering college behind in core areas such as math, reading, or writing can delay a student’s progress. It may mean the student is required to take remedial courses or they may fail and need to repeat courses. Even for students who are performing at “college level,” if they have not completed some college requirements in high school it can make it tough for them to finish on time. If 80% of entering engineering majors have already had some calculus in high school, it can place a student behind the curve to have to catch up.

Working Too Many Hours
While students who work generally earn better grades in college some students have unrealistic expectations about how many hours they can work at a job and still do well in school. Sometimes this situation comes about due to poor college choice. Directly enrolling into a four year college may not be a realistic plan given some students’ financial circumstances. Lower cost options such as community college or going to college part time may make more sense.

Too often students are working excessive hours in order to support a car they really can’t afford or a lifestyle that should be scaled back. Working during college isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, there is research that suggests students who work about 10 hours a week may actually get better grades than students who do not work. But clearly there is a tipping point where working too many hours can affect student’s grades and progress toward graduation.

Number of Credit Hours per Semester
At many colleges students need to take fifteen hours per semester in order to earn the required 120 credit hours in four years. While fifteen hours may be the standard load, colleges permit students to take twelve hours as a minimum full time load.  At twelve credit hours per fall and spring semester, it will take the student five years to earn 120 hours (assuming that all of the hours perfectly meet graduation requirements). Due to restrictions on financial aid and scholarships, attending during the summer is not a practical choice for many students. This is not to say all students should take fifteen credit hours every semester. Particularly for many students with learning disabilities, it may make sense to take a lighter course load. It is just important that the student understands how this affects their time to graduation.

Advising Failures
The quality of advising varies dramatically from one college to the next. There are schools that do a great job meeting with students every semester and making sure they are taking the right courses. There are other schools where students end up waiting in line to see a different random adviser every semester and they may not be get adequate counseling. They may also have a difficult time getting into required courses on time. As college is a huge investment, I suggest parents do not take it as a given that the student is getting good advising. Check in with your student and ask them to show you the requirements and their progress toward a degree. I think it is good idea for parents to set up the expectation that you have access to online accounts that include the college system for monitoring progress to degree. Legally under privacy laws this access is not your right as a parent, but it is up to each family to determine your own family policies for what you will require if you are paying the bills.

Some kids just aren’t ready for college. They mess up the first year. They may party, skip classes, or just have no idea how to manage their time. This can lead to failing classes or needing to repeat classes. If your student struggles the first year, encourage them to use campus resources such as tutoring and advising. If they are unsuccessful and get placed on academic probation do not assume they just had one bad semester. Before you pay for another semester, make sure there is a plan in place to deal with problems.

Evaluate Personal Risk
While I would suggest that you look at the average four year graduation rate for the colleges your student is considering, try to put that number into context. If your child is highly motivated and well prepared for college, you may have little to worry about. If your student struggles academically and will need to work long hours, you may want to make sure your family is prepared to pay for more than four years. Time to graduation is a key factor in college costs. Some students may find that four years at a private school where they graduate on time is less expensive than enrollment in a public university if it takes five or six years to graduate.


  • You’ve hit on several major points although I’ve know people who spent more time in college due to military service (deployment while serving on the National Guard, among other services), illness or injury (athletes), family situations, cooperative education programs and dual degrees or double majors. Some of these things cannot be helped, others can.

    Your take on Failure of Advising is important. When I visit schools I try to meet with the administrators and professionals involved in student success. The best practices involve multiple offices: residence life, student affairs, academic advising, among others. The best practices are identify students who are undecided about a major or “at-risk,” meaning that they need some remedial help or tutoring early in the term. I’ve been to some schools that created living-learning communities around success in an academic program.

    However, the colleges have created a problem. There has been more support for “direct admissions,” meaning that students go directly into the college of their choice within a university. For instance, instead of being in a “university college” or “arts and sciences” they go right into the business school or another academic division as a freshman. Students who enter college with some AP or IB credits like this because they can avoid introductory classes in the gen-ed curriculum and jump right into their major.

    But the problem is that students change their mind, while enrolled at a school where each college (business, engineering, among others) set their own gen-ed requirements. But suppose you start in engineering and switch to business after your freshman year. The math can be credited to the business program, so can a year of a science like chemistry or physics. But the other engineering classes might not fill “allowable” electives to complete the business major. If universities did not allow the individual schools to mess with the ten-eds so much, more students would be able to graduate on time. The public schools with the highest grad rates such as UVa, William and Mary and Chapel Hill, already deal with this quite well.

  • Stuart,
    Thanks for your insightful comment. Great point about the variation in gen-ed requirements from one program to another. Interesting that the publics with higher graduation rates have found better ways to deal with this.

  • We have saved on state pre-paid tuition. We told our kids that’s what they get and that’s what they get. They better finish in four years.

  • The greatest factorr at my university, one of the most elite, was what we students called “weeder” courses. We had heard from graduate students that work as TAs, teaching assistants, that “weeder” courses used to be typically first year courses. But in more recent years, universities began culling the students in year three. Largely because they could gleen more tuition prior to weeding out students. I recall talking with other more senior students who identified the weeder course of our program. And indeed, by year three, 40%’ of students did not pass that course, including myself, who had prior knowledge. I simply could not risk dedicatring more time to that one course without jeopardizing my other courses. It was a no win scenario. I tried to organize the student union to address this issue, but students are overwhelmed by course load, and too busy to protest. I did my classes, followed by library and computer work, then supper and nap, and worked until 11pm every night… for five years! I did get my Bachelor of Science…and the university did get their added year of tuition from all the ‘weeded’ students. It’s about money, not about integrity. Lastly, more students are working during university…this has a huge impact on a student’s ability to be successful. Even 15 hours of work means that other students already have 15 hours of study ahead of you, and you haven’t even started yet.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience Cara.
      It sounds like you really worked hard to persevere in a system that made it really difficult to succeed.

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