We think of college as being a four-year commitment. But the reality is, most students take years longer than that to earn a bachelor’s degree.
At four-year institutions, only 41% of students graduate with their bachelor’s degree in four years, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. At the same institutions, 60% of students complete the same degrees in six years, the data shows.
Between overwhelming degree options, enrollment in the wrong courses, completing too few credits and taking remedial courses — there are many reasons why students may take longer to graduate. But extra years of college are a huge financial burden — every extra year means another year of paying tuition and other college costs. According to U.S. News, this can add anywhere from $10,116 to $36,801 in tuition cost each year, depending on the institution and its location. To make matters worse, extra tuition likely leads to extra student loans.
Here are eight tips on how to earn a bachelor’s degree in four years so you can save money on tuition and start earning money as a college graduate.
How to graduate college on time
1. Research schools’ graduation rates
Earning your degree in an affordable and timely manner starts even before you enter college. Before choosing a college, look carefully to see if the majority of students are graduating in four years. You can look up schools’ graduation rates using the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, by simply searching the name of the institution. This tool also provides other valuable information for choosing a college, including average annual cost, average student debt, median post-graduation earnings and much more.
If the school’s graduation rates are not desirable, start asking questions. Are students studying popular majors, which leads to difficulty registering for classes? Are students running out of money or are they unhappy with their education?
2. Choose the right school for you
Choosing the right college or university from the start helps avoid the need to transfer. Transferring often leads to lost credits, which prolongs graduation. In order to choose a college that’s the right fit for you, do your research by looking at data from the College Scorecard, visiting the campus, and asking questions of t existing students and admissions representatives. Choose a school that offers everything you need to achieve your goals, including the majors and minors you’re interested in, enough available courses each semester and opportunities to learn outside of the classroom setting.
3. Meet with your academic advisor regularly
Earning your degree can be intimidating. Academic advisors are there to help you navigate all your options and ensure you are taking courses that meet specific graduation requirements.
Academic advisors are a great resource for more than just academic planning. They can also help you stay up-to-date on industry trends in the field you wish to enter after graduation. Your academic advisor can assist you in finding field experience opportunities or on-campus events. They also provide resources for academic success and moral support.
To avoid any detrimental missteps and reinforce your goals for graduation, you should meet with your academic advisor at least once a semester. However, if you have any questions or concerns, it is important to reach out immediately.
4. Have a major in mind
Starting college with a major in mind is another important way to help you graduate on time. Knowing the required courses from the beginning will help you and your academic advisor create a plan that promotes success, so you can avoid wasting time with courses you don’t need. This can also help you be strategic about when you enroll in certain classes. Try to avoid taking multiple challenging classes in the same semester.
If you do start college with an undecided major, meet with your academic advisor to discuss all your options. Talk with them about what you enjoy and what your strengths and weaknesses are. They will likely suggest you start by taking general education or elective credits that are required for graduation. As you take these courses, pay attention to the types of things you appreciate learning — this might help you decide on a major. Another way to help choose your field of study is to visit your college’s career services center.
If you choose a major and later decide you want to change it, start by talking to your advisor. Every school is different, and you want to make sure you are still on track to graduate in the shortest amount of time.
5. Take a full course load
While taking 12 credits per semester at most colleges is considered full-time, most degrees require the completion of 120 credits to graduate. This means to graduate on time, you need to take at least 15 credits each semester. However, depending on your major and college, you might need to take even more than that. Talk to your advisor to make sure the credits you are taking are fulfilling degree and graduation requirements.
A 2016 study by the Community College Research Center shows that students who take at least 15 credits in their first semester of college are more likely to earn their degrees than those who start by taking only 12 credits. These students also benefit financially, paying 9-19% less in tuition fees to complete their degrees. Some students fear that by taking more than 12 credits they will be overwhelmed and unable to perform academically. However, students who took at least 15 credits were no more likely to fail any of their courses than students who only took 12 credits.
If you fear not being able to handle the required credits each semester to graduate on time, consider taking summer courses — they often cost less and are less crowded.
6. Test out of college credits
There are various ways to get college credits without actually taking (and paying for) college courses:
- AP courses: These are college-level courses and exams offered in high school. Based on your AP exam score upon completion of the course, you can earn college credit. Earning AP credits can save you time and money in college. Check out the College Board website to search institution credit policies.
- CLEP: The College Board’s College-Level Examination Program allows students to earn college credit for information they already know. CLEP offers 34 exams that cover material generally covered in courses in the first two years of college for a reduced price. Search institution policies here.
- DSST: Dantes Subject Standardized Test offers over 30 exams in business, humanities, physical science, social sciences, and technology that earn college credit outside of the classroom.
7. Do well in your classes
Avoid failing or dropping out of classes. It is important to stay on track completing credits if you want to graduate on time. You don’t want to get behind. If you feel like you are in danger of failing a class, reach out to your professor, academic advisor, and other campus resources, such as the campus tutoring center. If you know that a course is going to be challenging, consider getting extra help from the beginning.
8. Advocate for yourself
Don’t be afraid to be your own biggest advocate. Be proactive. Don’t show up to meetings with your academic advisor empty-handed. Come prepared with what your goals are and how you plan to achieve them. If you find yourself having issues scheduling courses, talk to your academic advisor or the department chair. They might be more flexible than you think. They can also help you find equivalent substitution courses.
How to graduate college on time: FAQs
How many credits do you need to graduate college?
A bachelor’s degree typically requires 120 credits. An associate degree typically requires 60 credits. A master’s degree typically requires an additional 32-60 credits after earning a bachelor’s degree.
What percentage of college students graduate in four years?
Only 41% of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree graduate in four years, according to data from the National Center of Education Statistics.
How many years is a bachelor’s degree?
Typically, a bachelor’s degree is earned in four years. It can be done in fewer, but it can also take longer. The time it takes depends on several factors, including the number of credits you enter college with, the number of courses you take each semester and the number of summer courses you take.