Traditionally, college education was assumed to reach completion in four years. However, studies indicate that recently more students are enrolled for five years to earn a bachelor’s degree and, indeed, some college programs are requiring a five-year period for matriculation. For instance, with more and more educational opportunities available through colleges and universities, many students are eligible for work study programs, study abroad, internships and volunteer programs. Although these opportunities enrich the student’s background, without proper planning they also can contribute to a delay in graduation. Each year of delay, in turn, increases the overall cost of that eagerly sought degree.

It is critical that parents take an active role in the selection of colleges and educational majors. Even more important, a parent must remain a participant in the process leading to graduation. If parents provide the framework for the decision-making process to assist the student in making the final decision at critical points during the college years, it is possible to guide the aspiring graduate through the maze of requirements to a timely completion. The following are the principle causes for delayed graduation and how to avoid failing to reach the goal in four.

Change of school. The original selection of a college or university is very important. If a student “shops around” by attending rather than selecting by a defined process, the result can be expensive. Credits for courses taken in one institution may not transfer to another. The student is forced to repeat course work at the expense of both time and money.

To avoid this dilemma, parents and students can begin a systematic selection process by working carefully with the school counselor, attending the college nights throughout the high school years and make campus visits with a chart in hand that helps compare aspects of each college.
If the long-term plan is to attend a less expensive college for two years and then transfer, parents and students should work with both colleges during the selection of courses to ensure proper transfer and full acceptance of credits.

Course scheduling process. Change in course requirements for graduation by the college, improper course sequence, and close out of required classes due to too large or too small enrollments are cited each year as reasons for graduation delay. Students must be aware of the process, participate early and regularly monitor for changes. Both parents and students should maintain open lines of communication with the key college personnel who can both guide the process of course selection and program completion.

Change of major. If a student is required to declare a major field of study early, any change of major will require additional course work and prolong graduation. If the student is vague about major area, try to select a program or college that does not require early declaration of major, will permit the student to attend classes prior to declaration and has a cluster of majors in which the student is interested so that a change of major does not require a change of college. To minimize complications, explore career interests and personal strengths prior to selection of a major. Base the decision on student aptitude, not desire alone.

Course failure. Proper study and time-management skills are needed prior to enrollment in college so that a student can optimize academic performance. If the student has not demonstrated strong habits and skills, consult the professional school counselor to receive hints and resources for the student prior to enrollment. Check the intended college to explore what programs and procedures are available for on-campus assistance. Colleges that require study periods or have learning labs may offer better options for students who need to improve on these skills.

Failure to meet required prerequisites. If a student does not have necessary skills for course completion, extra course work could be required prior to enrollment in a required program or a course. A placement testing program may give advance warning of this situation. Students can take preparation courses from a less expensive institution (i.e. community college or learning center) during the summer to meet the requirement and reduce time loss. Also, check to see if any of these credits can be considered as “transfer credit.”

Absence from program. If a student becomes ill, has emotional problems, financial concerns or other reasons for leaving the program, a delay in graduation will occur. Depending on circumstances, the student and parent may explore possible programs via independent study or other college alternatives to minimize the loss of time. The road to a timely graduation takes informed decisions, assertiveness and commitment to an accepted goal by both the parent and student. Graduation commencement is truly a family accomplishment and deserves celebration.

Judith Lee Ladd is a former president of the American School Counselor Association and serves as a professional school counselor and licensed professional counselor.