4-Year Graduation Rate:  How To Increase Your Odds

College is expensive. And it’s getting more expensive every year. One way to help keep costs down is to make sure your student graduates in four years. Unfortunately, according to the National Center on Education Statistics, the 4-year graduation rate is only 41% for American college students (link to 2019 data based on students entering college in 2010).

Like DoD Weapons Systems or that home improvement project, college can all too often extend past expected completion dates.  The longer it takes a student to graduate, the higher the total cost. For most families, the 5th year isn’t in the budget.  The 5th year can drive the overall cost of college not just 25% higher, but sometimes much more.  This is because some scholarships are only provided for the first 4 years.  Additionally, if you’ve taken out loans, interest will continue to accrue driving balances higher.

In this post, we’ll look at why is this number of students graduating in 4 years so low and what can families do to help their students graduate on time.

Why is the 4-Year Graduation Rate So Low?

There are numerous reasons why students don’t graduate in four years.  Here are a few of the primary ones:

  1. Not taking enough credits or the right courses
  2. Having to take a break to earn more money or having to work too many hours while attending school
  3. Changing majors
  4. Transferring to another school

Not taking enough credits or the right courses

You can typically be a full-time student taking 12 credit hours.  This probably isn’t enough to graduate within 4 years without summer courses.  This can also occur if you start with a full load, but have to drop courses.  This also might not be the student’s fault.  Some colleges make it hard to get into classes students need when they need them.  The school may also not provide enough advising to help keep student on track.

Having to take a break to earn more money or having to work too many hours while attending school

College is expensive so students may need to work during school, but working too many hours and taking fewer classes or having to take a semester or year off can extend the time to graduate.  It can also increase the cost because if you’ve taken loans you’re accruing interest.  You’re also likely earning less than you would with a college degree reducing your overall lifetime earnings.

Changing Majors

Changing majors often delays graduation because students may need to take additional courses and some of their previous coursework may not count.  Some majors may also have specific prerequisites that are only offered in a particular sequence requiring the student to almost start over.  This can be particularly true if the change is significant and there is little overlapping coursework.

Transferring Schools

Similar to changing majors, transferring schools can also add time to the college plan.  Even if your student is staying in the same major, not all credits may transfer or there may be specific courses that the new school mandates.


What Can Families Do to Help Their Students Graduate in Four Years?

There are several things families can do to help their students graduate in four years:

  1. Encourage your student to take a full course load each semester
  2. Make sure your student is taking courses that count toward their degree
  3. Help your student choose a major early on and stick with it
  4. Make sure your student is taking advantage of academic advising services
  5. Consider summer classes or online courses if your student needs to catch up

Additionally, there are 2 things families can do before starting college:

Establish a realistic 4-year budget

Too many families get their financial aid letter and know it’ll be a stretch to make that “dream” college work.  They optimize for years 1 and maybe 2 and believe they’ll “just figure it out” for years 3-4.  This can lead breaks in school or the crazy amounts of loans that you hear about on the news.

Try to ensure the college fit is right

Picking a college is hard.  Every school presents itself as the perfect place where everyone will be happy.  If you’re like most, you may spend a few hours or if you’re lucky a few days on campus.  Thinking about it logically, it’s amazing that more students don’t transfer.  Maybe it points to the fact that as long as you get the big things correct like size, major availability, location, etc. schools aren’t that different.  That being said, helping to minimize the likelihood of your student transferring schools will help them stick to the 4-year plan.

By following these tips, you can help your student graduate in four years and save money on college costs.

If you liked this article, check out this post on student loans:  how much is too much (link).


  • Mike Hunsberger, ChFC®, CFP®, CCFC

    Mike Hunsberger, ChFC®, CFP®, CCFC is the owner of Next Mission Financial Planning located in Saint Charles, Missouri serving clients across the US and wherever the military takes them. After 25 years in the Air Force he started his firm to support military, former military, and retirees through values-based financial planning enabling clients to live their best lives.