Earning a degree often takes six years
Credit: Morguefile photo by kconnors

Planning Ahead Saves Time

Nowadays, the odds are stacked against students who want to get through college in four years. A freshman, just starting out, has only a 41 percent chance of doing so.

The odds of eventually graduating begin to tip in your favor if you stick around campus a little longer. In the United States, 59 percent of those who enter college will earn a diploma within six years. If they take a little longer (eight years), they have an additional 2 percent chance of obtaining a bachelor's degree.

Extending college is now the norm. But it's not without cost. Students who take longer to graduate end up paying more for their degree. They have a greater chance of taking on crippling debt. They also lose time in the workforce, when they could be advancing their career, instead of trying to earn those last few credits.

But it's still possible to graduate on time, or even early. You just need to plan ahead. Here's what you need to do.

The difficulty of graduating on time
Credit: Morguefile photo by Alvimann

Earn College Credits While in High School

The easiest way to get a head start on your degree is with Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. (These also look very impressive on your high school transcript.) Once you complete these courses, you can take a test. If you pass with a certain score, you can usually earn college credits for that course.

The exact score you need for AP credit depends on the institute you plan to attend. The more selective colleges will require that you pass with a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. Many schools will accept a four and some will accept a 3. The IB test is graded slightly differently.

If your school doesn't offer either of these programs, you can probably become a dual enrollment student. You'll need your guidance counselor to sign off on this. But if you get clearance, you can usually take courses at either a local state university or at a community college. Credits earned will be applied to your high school courses and they will also count toward your college degree.

However, students who struggle to keep up with their high school courses shouldn't attempt this. It's too risky because a bad dual enrollment grade will follow them. It will appear on their high school, as well as their final college transcript, and it could affect college admission decisions.

Choose Your College With Care

Changing universities is one of the leading reasons students linger at college. This can become a huge roadblock because, oftentimes, credits earned at one institute won't be accepted at another.

This is also something you should consider if you decide to take dual enrollment classes. Often, these are available at the state university or community college level. Many private and some out-of-state public schools will not accept community college credits. So, if you plan to apply to only private schools, you should first make sure they'll accept your dual enrollment classes.

On average, students in the United States earn a little more than 136 credits while working toward their bachelor's degree. (You only need 120 credits to graduate.) Much of the excess is a result of transferring schools. Also, this is only an average figure. Some students waste many more credits.

So, if you can avoid a transfer, you'll also likely avoid additional time in school.

Take Summer Courses at a Community College

Depending upon the institute you intend to graduate from, you might be able to fulfill some of your missing credits at a community college. (Just make sure you'll be able to transfer them.)

Community colleges often have extremely flexible class times in a variety of locations. So you might be able to earn credits during your summer break, or even during your winter break. You might even be able to fulfill your course requirements totally online, or with a "hybrid" course that is a combination of online and in-class instruction.

Oftentimes, the cost of these courses is very reasonable. Because many community college professors are more focused on teaching, rather than research, you'll probably also get very personalized instruction and extra help if you need it.

A Story of a Prolonged College Stay