How to Graduate from College on Time: Part I

Did you know that most college students don't graduate in four years? But you can graduate on time and in control with this straightforward (and non-sugar-coated) advice from a higher education insider!

As Associate Dean of Academic Advising, Bob Neuman, Ph.D., spent his professional life working one-on-one with thousands of college students, many of them in academic trouble, despite excellent high school grades and test scores. Listening to these students, he identified a set of common problems that defined student “un-readiness” to meet the academic demands of college. These problems formed the basis of the 12 strategies of his book aimed at younger students, Are You Really Ready for College? Here, he shares a few of his insights on what undermines college student success.

College is different

Over the years, I’ve given thousands of new college students some very basic advice. First, college isn’t like high school. Many students want college to be 13th grade, but it’s not. So you’re going to have to make some serious adjustments. Second, college is a full-time job, so you have to study better, harder—and a lot longer. And, lastly, you have to focus on graduating on time.

About graduation rates

When I talk about graduating on time, most students look at me as if to say, “Of course I’ll graduate on time. Four years and I’m out of here!” The sad truth is that most college students do not graduate on time. Only one out of three students (33%) graduates from a four-year bachelor’s degree program in four years. In fact, after six years, only a little more than 60% of college students will have completed their college degree. The United States now ranks 12th in the world with regard to young people with college degrees.

Students don’t expect college to take so long. They don’t see it coming, but nearly 40% haven’t graduated after seven years. This article will identify some reasons for the low graduation rates. And to keep the article brief, my comments will be pretty straightforward—no softening of the truth.

The cost of graduating late

You don’t want to be a student who hangs around college hoping to “get adjusted” and waiting for things to eventually fall into place on their own. Just think of the financial consequences. College is terribly expensive as it is. So imagine having to pay 25% more with each year you add to your education. . . . Just do the math.

All that wasted time and money, and there you are graduating from college, trying to begin the next phase of your life later than you thought—and with more debt. So how do you avoid the pitfalls? How do you get from “here” (where you are now) to “there” (on-time graduation)?

The right attitude—and graduating with pride

From day one in college, you have to focus on graduating on time. Once you firmly set that single, crucial goal for yourself, it leads you to other goals: studying and succeeding in each course, for example. And once you’ve become more confident academically, you become more focused, more determined to set and achieve even more goals (e.g., high grades, challenging courses, graduating with honors.) One goal creates another, and all transform you into a first-class student with great options for your future.

So why do so many students take five, six, and even more years to earn their degree? What don’t they understand? From my experience, here are four of the major mistakes that prevent students from graduating on time.

Mistake #1: Not taking college seriously

Too many college freshmen continue to act like high school students and think like teenagers. It’s a mindset they carry throughout college. They study very little. Instead, they cram for tests and then blame teachers and bad luck for low grades. They generally maintain the attitude that school is something to get through as easily and painlessly as possible. They just don’t want to believe that college is different, more demanding, requiring more work and independent study.

This attitude just won’t cut it in college where being careless and casual means being left behind. So if you don’t take college seriously right away, your education will continue to move beyond your grasp until it is simply out of sight. Therefore, not acting like a college student is mistake number one.

Mistake #2: Students don’t “do the job”

Research reports that 65% of college-bound high school seniors study fewer than six hours a week. After studying as little as five hours each week in high school, college freshmen just don’t believe that college requires 30-40 hours per week of outside-of-class study, much like a full-time job.

If you had a job, what would happen if you told your boss things like “I’ll do that later,” or “I won’t be able to work next week,” or “I can’t do that very well; ask someone else,” or “I’m too tired to do that now; maybe later.” How long do you think you’d keep that job? Now, what do you think happens to college students if they try using these same kinds of excuses for postponing study and not keeping up with classes? It just won’t work. Like the irresponsible employee, these college students are soon out of luck. In college, you have to “do the job.”

Mistake #3: Not thinking ahead

Do you remember when you were little how some of your relatives would ask you, “So what are you going to be when you grow up?” Now you’re a college student, and I’m going to ask you a similar question, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” College is supposed to be your big preparation for life, so what exactly are you preparing for? Do you know? Too many college students are still thinking like teenagers: “It’ll somehow all work itself out.”

Once again, thinking like that just won’t cut it. If you don’t make college work for you by setting goals and making plans for your future—like taking and succeeding in the courses that will get you there, joining relevant extracurricular clubs and organizations, and acquiring pertinent work and internship experience—nothing will happen.

It’s a heavy responsibility, but you’re the one who has to carry it. Successful college students look toward their future with career opportunities, job options, and a lot of self-confidence. So if you haven’t thought about what you’re going to do with your life during high school, then as a new college student, you have to begin answering that question even before you finish your freshman year.

Mistake #4: Taking a lackadaisical approach toward majors

As a college freshman, you may not know exactly what kind of career path you want to follow. That’s okay. College is a time of looking, talking, and discovering. But you still have to have an academic plan, and you should start formulating that plan as soon as possible. There are a lot of majors, and you should investigate them. Talk to other students, teachers, and even professionals in fields that interest you; take exploratory classes—while making sure you take care of your prerequisite and required courses; and join clubs and pursue work opportunities that will expose you to your major options. 

One of the biggest mistakes you can make? Going into the game with zero defined interests. It’s that high school attitude creeping in again: “Oh, it’ll come together sooner or later.” In college that attitude pushes you further away from a degree. Once you decide on a major, you’ll know which courses are required and you can begin taking them sooner, not later. If you start college undecided, try to narrow your focus to a handful of majors that interest you, and hedge your bets by taking classes that can work toward multiple degrees. While it’s good to explore your academic options, choosing a major at the 11th hour might leave you scrambling to make up the required courses—which will almost certainly delay an on-time graduation.

Here’s a tip to keep in mind as you consider a college major. You can divide majors or degrees into two groups. On the one side, you have what I call “professional” majors or degrees like engineering, computer science, education, business administration, nursing, etc. These academic areas point to specific careers and professions.

On the other side, you have liberal arts majors and those subjects that don’t usually point in a specific career direction. These are majors like history, sociology, biology, English, political science, and foreign languages.

When looking toward a job, a student graduating in the liberal arts may not have the clearly defined career path of, say, an accountancy major, but employers really want to see relevant work and extracurricular experiences. Critical-thinking, clear writing, and organizational skills: these are qualities you can cultivate in many ways—and apply to practically any job.

Liberal arts students enter the job market equipped with very good analytical, communication, and problem-solving skills. In some cases, these students go on to graduate school. You’ll find liberal arts graduates in medical and law schools, earning advanced academic degrees, or attending schools offering professional education after college.

I recommend you start as early as your junior year asking for help with a college’s career counselors and academic advisors. In fact, I judge the quality of a college by the job and career counseling it provides.

Your challenge

Starting college means making a lot of adjustments, changes, and decisions about yourself, as a student and as a person. It means becoming determined and mature about reaching goals, and intelligent in using your time—skills that you’ll use not only with regard to your college education, but your whole life. It means renewing old goals and setting new ones.

Your biggest new goal? To graduate on time. Set that goal firmly in your mind the first day you walk into a college classroom, and you’ll make other good decisions. You’ll get great grades, and you’ll equip yourself with the intelligence and knowledge you need to succeed in life. It is upon that single goal that all the others stand.

Earning power and on-time graduation

College is a really big deal, and not just because a person with a college degree will earn twice as much $$$ in a lifetime than someone without one. For many students, college is their last educational chance to show that they are very intelligent, knowledgeable, resourceful people who are clever problem solvers and excellent communicators. 

When college graduates go out to find a job, what question are they constantly asked? “How smart are you?” Maybe not asked in just those words, but it’s the basic question on employers’ minds. Employers want mature and industrious people who “achieve.” Success in college means you can “do the job.”

Earn a college degree on time with high grades, and you can honestly say in a job interview, “Yes, I’m smart, and I work hard, just look at my college transcript, and see what I can do.”

If you’ve graduated on time, this signals that you are organized, focused, and responsible. You meet deadlines. Applicants who present employers with college transcripts covering five or six years that show dropped courses, inconsistent grades, and transfers from one college or program to another appear to be students “wandering in the academic wilderness” without goals, without purpose. So say to yourself that you are NOT going to be one of those students.

When you start your college education, you need to remember that your “life” is right around the corner. If you make college the best experience of your life, as you turn that corner, you’ll love what you see.

Next time: What you can do to avoid the four mistakes . . . 

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