The plan can be flexible, but the commitment must be firm for college students.
By Anne Vaccaro Brady
In my previous post, I discussed how making the right decisions in high school can impact whether a student graduates a four-year college in four years, instead of six, the new average. This post explains how to help your student stay on track for a four-year degree once she starts college.
Starting with freshman year, your student should strive to take more than the minimum credits required to meet full-time status. Too many kids settle for 12-credit semesters instead of 15, which, by the end of four years, leaves them two semesters or 24 credits short of the average 120-credit graduation requirement.
Many colleges now put a limit on the maximum number of credits a student can take per semester before incurring additional fees. For my kids, the number was 17. Basically, your college student should take five full-credit classes a semester, balancing one or two demanding classes with three or four more manageable ones. Some majors have higher credit requirements than others, which means good planning on your student’s part.
Find the right help A good adviser can make all the difference in keeping your student on track. Your teen needs to take the initiative to change advisers if hers is ineffective or find a department head or professor who can guide her. Checking in early with the graduation office to verify that you’re on course with credits and classes is a good idea, too. We’ve all heard the stories of college seniors finding out too late that they’re a few credits or a class short of graduation.
Avoid taking filler courses One of the characteristics of students who are still on campus after four years is that they accumulate more credits than they need to graduate but not enough in the right courses. Sometimes, when students can’t get into a required class, they take anything to meet their minimum course requirement to keep their full-time status and financial aid. Encourage yours to always aim to take classes that get him closer to graduation, including electives.
Plan before transferring According to a 2015 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, over a third of college students transfer institutions at least once before graduation. For students considering a move, it’s vital that they maximize the number of credits that will transfer from the current college to the new one. Too many kids end up behind because of credits lost in the transfer process. By working closely with an adviser at the current college and advocating for yourself with an admissions officer/academic adviser at the new college, a student can gain the highest credit transfer rate possible.
Pay attention to class schedules Colleges are facing their own budget woes, despite their high tuition rates. Public colleges, in particular, have seen their state funding reduced steadily since the 2008 recession. One of the ways colleges save money is by offering courses less often. This wreaks havoc on student schedules, leaving kids scrambling to figure out when they can take required or prerequisite courses and still graduate on time. Students need to pay close attention to when their major courses are offered to plan their upcoming semesters.
Colleges are expanding their online course options, even for on-campus students. With no classroom necessary, class size doesn’t matter as much and the cost per student is lower. Sometimes the instruction is online and recitation in-person. My son took an online course in each of two semesters, the only way he could take the prerequisites he needed to continue in his major.
Find ways to catch up If your student fears he’s coming up short, taking a course or two over the summer at his own college, the local community college, in-state school or online can help. Find the cheapest option and the one that fits your student’s job/internship schedule best. Electives/general education requirements transfer easier than major courses, but your student should verify with an adviser which course credits from another institution will be accepted. Some kids use the summer to take a hard course because they can give that class all of their attention.
Learn to explore Students who choose to enter college undecided or undeclared should look for a school that offers an exploration program. These programs help undergrads find a major through a guided group of courses that match with their interests and strengths, and can include mentoring and/or an internship.
I recommend all freshmen visit the Career Services office, but it’s especially important for undecided students. The focus is on helping kids find majors and/or careers that match their interests and personality.
Students with multiple interests who can’t decide among two or three majors should think seriously about dual majoring or adding one or more minors. Depending upon how well the majors and minors cross over, some courses can count toward more than one program, making graduating on time easier.
Know when to fold ’em Pay attention if your teen struggles freshman year, especially if it continues into the second semester. An engineering major who can’t pass calculus or the nursing student who fails biology both semesters needs to consider a new program of study, which could be in a similar but less demanding field. Talking with an academic adviser or professor about options can help.
Factor in study abroad Studying or interning in a foreign country is a great experience for college students. But this opportunity requires managing your on-campus class schedule carefully because study abroad usually comes with more limited course options. If not handled correctly, a semester abroad can mean an extra semester on campus. Taking advantage of a summer program abroad might make more sense for students with less flexibility in their major.
Weigh the options For undergrads who must pay for college predominantly on their own, finding a work and school balance is critical. Sometimes students can only take one or two courses a semester because they need to work to pay for those classes. Unfortunately, this means taking a longer time to graduate and prevents part-timers from qualifying for the often more generous financial aid available to full-time students. Make sure your teen considers all factors when deciding the best way to earn her degree.
Complete the degree Remember, today employers hire people with degrees in-hand. Having some college doesn’t cut it anymore. Earning that degree in a timely fashion will help your student go out into the world and start living his life sooner and hopefully with less debt hanging over him.
Share your thoughts on helping your college student graduate in four years in the comments section below.