Is the “four-year college degree” a misnomer in the modern day and age? In many ways, the answer is yes. Only a fraction of college students actually graduates in four years or less, and many take six years or more. Common reasons for the delay include frequently switching majors or schools, taking unnecessary courses that don’t count toward a degree, and working part- or full-time.

There are a variety of reasons why staying on schedule for a four-year graduation is a wise plan. Finances is a big one. A 2013 report from the University of Texas at Austin found that students who graduate on time spend 40 percent less than those who graduate in six years.

If you’re taking on student loan debt, the figures are even more grim. “According to data from Temple University in Philadelphia and from the University of Texas, Austin, two extra years on campus increases debt by nearly 70 percent,” reports The New York Times. Worse, you might lose financial aid or scholarships if you fail to take a benchmarked number of courses each semester. An analysis from NerdWallet pegged the total cost of graduating in six years rather than four at $300,000 in additional tuition, lost income and retirement savings, and loan interest.

Failing to graduate on time also has career implications. By remaining in school additional years, would-be graduates forego earnings in jobs they would have ostensibly accrued, as pointed out by this report from the Brookings Institution.

So, how do you keep on a four-year track? Here are seven quick tips.

1. Create a plan

Work with a guidance counselor or academic advisor to map out the required load of credit hours for your degree, and then determine how many credit hours you need to take each semester. 120 credits for eight semesters factors out to an average of 15 credits per semester, or around five courses worth three credit hours each. How will you allocate these? Having a plan on paper will increase the likelihood of sticking to it.

2. If you change majors, do it within the same career field

This helps because most (or all) of your credits will transfer. While this is generally sound advice, don’t let it dissuade you from pursuing a degree change up that will better fit your life and career. The extra time, effort, and cost could be worth it. If you do decide to switch majors, it’s self-evident that doing so earlier rather than later is best.

3. Be wise in your selection of courses

This tip can be rolled into creating a plan for college career, but it’s important enough to highlight individually. While taking a handful of fun elective courses can be good for both your life and career, always weigh the time and money cost. It’s generally good to avoid taking classes you don’t need. Research from the nonprofit Complete College America found that students seeking a bachelor’s degree ended up accruing an average of 136.5 credit hours before graduating (rather than the required 120 credits). That’s a full half semester of extra work!

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4. Don’t change schools midstream

As with switching majors, changing colleges is a surefire way to stall your college career as well. Sometimes it makes sense to change colleges—maybe your goals and interests have changed—but always consider the cost and ensure your reasons make sense. Depending on your new school, some of the credits might not transfer. Not to mention the cost and hassle of applying for a new school.

5. Don’t work too much

We’ve argued elsewhere that paying your way through college can be done—and can actually be a good thing—but it can also get in the way of graduating on time. So consider this additional factor. It’s important to note that work experience and internships can end up benefiting you greatly, even if they delay your graduation. They can particularly help with securing a job post-graduation. So they are still well worth checking out. Just integrate them into your graduation and career plans.

6. Earn college credit while still in high school

The opportunities are varied: Take AP courses, pursue duel enrollment, take CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) courses, and investigate International Baccalaureate programs. Banking lots of college credit as a high schooler might even mean you can graduate earlier than four years—a major plus!

7. Get credit for previous work experience

Some colleges offer portfolio review, where you accrue credit for previous experience that amounts to college-level mastery of a certain topic. Although it takes lots of work researching and creating the portfolio, the feeling of seeing credits rack up for past work is definitely a good one.


A final thought: Students will need support from their academic institutions in finishing in four years or less, so always be sure to know what an institution’s four-year graduation rate is. This helpful PDF from the College Board shows the average rates at many large schools across the 50 states. A school’s rate suggests how much support you can expect in trying to graduate on time. Good luck!