Making the right decisions in high school can pay off in college.


Look closely at graduation rates on College Scorecard, the site set up by the U.S. Department of Education to help families compare colleges, and you’ll see that the percentage rates are based on six years for a four-year college and four years for a two-year school. Yes, graduating later is becoming the new normal and that’s not a good thing.

The financial impact of these extra semesters on students too often means plunging into debt via loans. Merit scholarships generally cover eight semesters or four years of college. Students who receive need-based financial aid must reapply for it every year. Even families who’ve saved for college generally budget only for four years.

The causes for delayed graduation vary. Some can be found in what students do in high school and others once they arrive at college. In this two-part series, I’ll look at ways to avoid straying from the four-year plan and how to help your student get back on track if they start falling behind.

This first post focuses on high school because what your teenager does here matters.

Do the work Administrators and professors have grown frustrated with the increasing number of students coming to campus unprepared for college-level work. Too many freshmen, especially at the community college level, spend their time and money taking remedial classes, usually in math and reading/writing. These course credits don’t count toward graduation, setting a student behind from day one.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt four-year colleges, fewer students need remedial help, but some are ill-equipped for the amount of time and the level of work required to pass a college class and end up failing at least one course, putting them behind as well.

The best way to prevent these setbacks is to make sure that your high school student actually learns the material they’re taught and does more than barely pass their classes, setting them up to handle their college course requirements. For example, almost every college student must take math for a semester or two, whether it’s calculus (engineering and all sciences) or college algebra (all other majors). Sign your teen up for extra help or tutoring in math, science, English and/or social studies now to avoid problems and save you money later. Besides, better grades in high school translate to more college acceptances senior year.

Take advantage of academic opportunities Encourage your student to take at least a couple of Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes offered at their high school. Completing the work and passing the exams for two or three of these classes allows a student to enter college with credits in-hand, creating flexibility in terms of managing their future course load, changing majors and even transferring colleges. Depending upon the number of credits earned, a student can walk onto campus with a semester of college completed. These classes, while not always reflective of a college course, can prepare your teen for the heavier workload they’ll face and time management skills they’ll need once they’re on campus.

If your high school has a program that allows students to take college courses instead of or in addition to AP/IB classes, seriously consider it.

I’m not suggesting you overload your teen’s schedule, the number of stressed out high school kids is too high already, but don’t pass up an opportunity to give your student a step up if it’s manageable.

Get a handle on what to study The estimates on the percentage of college students who change their majors run as high as 80 percent. Kids often lose credits by switching, especially when they choose an unrelated program, like going from art & design to engineering, or chemistry to finance. Help your teen head into college with a stronger idea of what they want to study by assisting them in researching majors and careers.

A list of prospective colleges should only include schools that offer the majors that interest your student. I know kids who picked a college for its aesthetics rather than ensuring it offered the programs they were interested in. You can go into marketing with an English or communications degree, but mechanical or aeronautical engineering requires more than an undergraduate degree in math.

Pay attention to your teen’s interests and talents, whether academic or cultural, and how they spend their free time. Video gamers open themselves up to career paths in software development, music, business, animation, engineering, industrial design, screenwriting, graphic design, marketing and sales, among others.

band1Your trumpet player or dancer can study to become a professional performer or a choreographer/composer, but also a journalist, fundraiser, communications or marketing pro, advocate, teacher or physical therapist/medical professional, with a plan to work in the arts. 

Part 2 of this series will look at helping your college student graduate in four years.

In the comments section below, share your thoughts on helping your teen make the right choices in high school so that they graduate college on time.