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Smart College Planning: Finishing in 4 Years

college planning

The term “4-year degree” has become something of a misnomer. While it is possible to finish college in 4 years (or less), the new average has actually become 6. How did this happen? Is it because college has become exorbitantly more difficult? Is it because students aren’t trying as hard? While there may be some validity to both of those possibilities, on a case by case basis, the much broader reason is far more practical – poor college planning. The longer your student is in college the more money you’ll have to pay.

Why College Planning  is so Important

Without a game plan there are several pit falls your student might stumble into.

Switching Majors

The cliché of college is that it is where a young adult “finds themselves.” While the college experience is full of maturation and development, going into it without a fairly clear idea of what you want to get out of it can be a fairly costly decision. Before your student begins, try to work out with them what they want to study and what they want to do with their degree. I’m not saying they won’t change their mind if they find their chosen course to not be to their liking; but switching majors should not be treated like a sample platter.

Taking Unnecessary Courses

When dealing with college there is always a tug of war for priority between experiences and practical applications. There will be classes that your child may want to take that will not help them towards their degree. It will be an extra expense for an experience and if it takes the place of a course that does further the degree it will prolong the process altogether. Only you and your student can decide if it’s worth it.

It should also be noted that there is a growing trend of students not being able to take required courses at opportune times due to lack of offerings from the school itself, prolonging the time it takes for students to earn their degrees. It could be unfortunate coincidence, but it’s certainly something to be aware of during the college selection process.


There are any number of unforeseen reasons your student might want to transfer from their original university; some more compelling than others. Just know that should they go through with it, some of their credits may not transfer with them, which will lead to redundancies in their studies. This amounts to more time and more money. Transferring schools is not a decision to make lightly.

As obvious as these things may seem, many students don’t know when they are taking classes that won’t count towards their degrees, or that their credits won’t transfer. There is a serious issue with advisement at both the high school and college level. Most advisors are responsible for hundreds of students and simply don’t have the time to give each one the attention they deserve, which is why it’s so important that you work with your student to make sure they have a clear road map to follow in order to maximize their time and your money.

College Planning: Options to Consider

In addition to having solid college planning, there are several other steps your student can take to cut down on their time in school, and they start earlier than you might think.

Advanced Placement Classes

Advanced Placement classes or AP classes are offered in high school to students whose grasp of a certain subject exceeds their contemporaries. What’s more, if they can successfully pass an end of the year AP test, they are given college credit for the subject essentially for free. These classes are not for everyone however, to get in your student must have an expressed ability to excel, sometimes going as far back as middle school. Talk with your student and their teachers. If you think they can handle it, it couldn’t hurt to ask.

CLEP Tests

College Level Examination Program or CLEP tests offer a chance for your student to test out of some of the general educations classes they will need to complete their first few years of college. Most of the tests cost less than $100 and in some cases can score your student as much as 18 credits in subjects ranging from calculus, to literature, to foreign language. If they pass enough CLEP tests it can save you both thousands of dollars before they even get to college.

Aggressive Course Load

This is the one that everyone thinks about when finishing early is brought up; it is not for the faint of heart. The more classes your student takes in a semester, the sooner they’ll finish; but overloading themselves could end up doing much more harm than good – at the end of the day it’s not just about taking the classes, but passing them. If they can pull it off, more power to them. A less taxing approach however would be to take extra, accelerated classes during summer and winter breaks. You’ll still have to pay for them, but they are usually less expensive than regular class and are likely to cut down on your child’s overall time in school.

The new experiences associated with starting college can be a lot to take in. In most cases, your student will be enjoying more freedom than they ever have before. Because of all the opportunities open to them, there will be a temptation to meander. Be sure to consult our academic team to find out the best ways for your student to finish college in four years. Click here to schedule a complimentary consultation with our advisors.

Jim Slowik

Jim Slowik strategizes for families of all incomes to leave no stone unturned to reduce college costs. Jim has worked for over 30 years in marketing and management with 20 of those years in financially related industries. As a parent of college students, Jim understands the challenges of navigating the college process. He holds a Bachelors of Marketing from North Central College.

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