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Help Your College Student Graduate in Four Years

Kimberly Yavorski

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It can be frustrating for parents to realize that, even if they’re paying most of their son or daughter's college expenses, they make few of the decisions and may hear little if anything about their student’s progress.

The college years are when parents really see their role changing to that of coach and onlooker. However, just like during other life stages, you can still have a positive influence.

Current statistics show that only 60 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students complete their degree in six years with only about 40 percent graduating in four years. Knowing the issues that boost or hinder success can help you guide your student to an on-time graduation.

Here are 10 key steps for them to follow!

1. Get credit for high school AP classes.

Many colleges accept high scores on AP tests for credit. Policies vary, but a score of 4 or 5 often results in either college credit, placing out of a lower-level course or both. Even if your student doesn’t get credit for the AP score, eliminating a prerequisite lets them take advanced classes sooner and progress faster along the major track.

2. Choose classes wisely.

Students who start with a declared major have a blueprint to follow. Those who don’t are best served by registering for classes in a variety of subjects including literature and writing, science, math, history, foreign language, art and humanities. They can do this while satisfying core or General Education requirements if the school has them (a good thing to do early so they don't overlook a required course). At least one of these courses will count toward your student's eventual major.

3. Double check requirements.

Each semester, remind your student to look at course requirements for graduation. Majors and minors also have requirements, both in number of credits and specific courses that must be taken. A regular review — with or without their advisor — will eliminate surprises senior year. They don’t want to pay for an extra semester just because they forgot one required elective.

4. Take enough credits, but not too many.

Make sure your student understands their school's credit system and knows how many courses/credits are needed each semester to achieve the total required in four years.

A typical course load should be about 15 credits a semester, which is generally four to five courses. While taking extra classes may sound like a good idea, overloading can cause students to do poorly or even fail, resulting in the need to retake classes. Some students thrive on a tough course load; others wilt under the pressure. Finding the sweet spot is the key to success.

5. Be intentional when choosing a major.

Changing majors is one of the main reasons students take more than four years to graduate. Once they invest time (and money) into a major, there are fewer available slots in their schedule to add classes. Students should declare or change their major by second semester of sophomore year to ensure there’s time to complete requirements.

6. Seek help if needed.

Students should make it a habit early on to meet with professors during office hours. When they establish a relationship, it’s easier to ask for help. Colleges also have staff dedicated to academic support who can direct your student to tutors as well as support services for students with learning disabilities.

A student failing at midterm may still be able to succeed in the class, but communication with the professor is crucial. Failing or withdrawing from several classes will make it difficult or even impossible to graduate in four years.

7. Keep in touch with advisors and look ahead.

Advisors assist with course registration and help students stay on track. Students should meet with their advisors at least once a semester, more if they have concerns about their classes or what direction they should go in next.

Students should plan ahead, allowing for flexibility when it comes time to register. Many advanced-level courses must be taken in a specific order and may not be offered every semester. Planning is especially important if your student intends to study abroad.

8. Consider summer courses.

If your student fails a class, summer is an opportunity to make it up or to take another class to meet their requirements for graduation. Summer classes are also a way to build in a buffer (i.e., get ahead credit-wise in case a rough semester causes them to drop a class), add another major or minor, or explore additional interests. If a few hard courses are looming, taking one during summer session can alleviate stress and allow your student to focus on the material, possibly leading to a stronger grade.

9. Understand the impact of transferring.

Sometimes students find that their school isn’t a good fit. They decide to transfer, but then discover that not all credits they’ve earned will transfer with them and they’ll have to take additional classes to graduate. Even if the credits transfer, they may not count toward the major at the new school.

Ask early in the process whether credits will transfer so there’s time to explore other options. Maybe another school will accept all credits or some can be made up over breaks.

10. Have a social life.

Friends are your student’s support network, whether that means helping them through a breakup or acting as a study buddy. Socially active students are more engaged in campus life and tend to earn better grades than those who don’t get involved.

Remember that, even if you’re paying the bills, your student is earning the degree so graduating in four years needs to be their goal.

Parents can help by acting as cheerleaders when things get tough and counselors when their students feel lost. By paying attention and asking the right questions, you can help your student stay (or get back) on track to graduate within four years.

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Kimberly Yavorski is a freelancer and mom of four who writes frequently on the topics of parenting, education, social issues, travel and the outdoors. Her work has been published in Grown & Flown, Your Teen, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Her View From Home, Pacific Standard, The Progressive, Racked, and Reader’s Digest.
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