New Guarantees Help College Students Graduate in Four Years

Katy Hopkins

Kyle Shack is like many college students: He didn't graduate on time.

"When entering college, I expected it to be four years; that's what my parents had expected; and I'd say that's what my fellow classmates expected," says Shack, who earned his bachelor's degree in five years from Michigan State University and is now working toward his teaching certification. "I definitely am in the majority of students [I know] who have taken longer."

In fact, only about 40 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate with a bachelor's degree in four years on average, according to data reported by colleges to U.S. News. (This data, the most recent available, relates to freshmen who began college in 2004 and completed a degree at that same school by August 31, 2008, based on statistics reported by 1,201 institutions.)

Sometimes, roadblocks to graduation are personal; family issues might take precedence, or students may have to pick up extra shifts at work, instead of more courses, to fund their education. For Shack, changing his major from political science to history--with a teaching certification that required even more time--derailed his original timeframe.

For other students, a lack of planning or an inability to secure a spot in required courses can cause them to slip off the graduation timetables, prolonging the time it takes to graduate and enter the workforce.

In part to combat those kinds of issues, a handful of colleges have debuted degree guarantee programs, some as recently as this fall. Provided undergraduate students meet requirements, such as earning good grades and completing sessions with their academic advisers, schools including Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio have pledged to graduate students on time, or pay the difference until they do.

[Find out which colleges have the highest four-year graduation rates.]

Debuting the new four-year degree guarantee program at Randolph-Macon in fall 2011 was a smooth step for the small school, according to Anthony Ambrogi, director of admissions and enrollment research.

"In some sense, this was kind of a low risk thing for us," Ambrogi says. "We already knew how successful our students were in getting out on time. This was a way for us to put [families'] minds at ease, especially at a time when more and more students are taking five and six years just to get their bachelor's degrees."

The programs can also be a marketing measure for schools looking to stand out among peers and attract students. Medaille College, for instance, announced its guarantee program in October 2011 and is now the only school in the Buffalo, N.Y., area with such a guarantee, says Gregory Florczak, the school's vice president for enrollment management and undergraduate admissions.

The guarantees can demonstrate a sense of community to students and parents, says Katherine Cohen, founder of educational counseling firm IvyWise.

"It's this mutual commitment between the students and the college," Cohen says. "Everyone seems to be more on board for the student, which is an incredible marketing tool. That's a school that you really want your student to go to."

Medaille's new program requires students to opt in to the guarantee and then ensures they have assistance and guidance. If a student wishes to change his or her major, for instance, an adviser will be there as a guide--a crucial element to ensuring a timely exit, Florczak says.

[Use these tips to pick the right major for you.]

"If a student, no matter where they go, truly wants to graduate on time, my best advice is that they make a connection with somebody in the advisement department," he says. "That's the person who's going to be able to guide them to graduate on time."

That kind of relationship would likely help students who are stuck in a major transition, acknowledges Shack at Michigan State. Since he was assigned an adviser in his original major program, he moved departments under little guidance and was unaware until after the switch that he would no longer graduate in four years, he says.

"I wouldn't say there was necessarily anyone that I knew personally, or an adviser I knew to meet with," Shack says. "You're kind of handed off from college to college, and it's hard, then, to understand exactly what's needed."

[Take these 10 steps to be your own college adviser.]

Still, it's often important for students to try to keep up with their requirements, particularly if they hope to take a nontraditional course load or finish a four-year degree early. At Indiana University, a new type of guarantee incentivizes this kind of experimentation, discounting summer tuition for in-state students by 25 percent and for out-of-state students by an equivalent dollar amount starting in 2012, according to a recent school announcement.

Though the new mandate could put more of the onus on students to determine if they can add more classes in the summer or how a semester away from school might affect their timeframe, it's also a way to craft a more flexible and potentially less expensive year-round option that could help them to leave on time or more quickly, degree in hand.

"I don't think that anybody comes to school thinking that it's going to take significantly longer than four years to graduate," says Mark Land, Indiana University's associate vice president for university communications. "Especially now, with money being such an issue for students, we're working harder than ever to keep them on track so they can get into the workforce."

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