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College: The Reality of the Fifth Year

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College: The Reality of the Fifth Year

Most students- and parents- expect college to take four years. That’s what we’re led to believe and count on. But taking more than four years to complete a bachelor's degree happens more often than we would like to think. According to the U.S. Department of Education, fewer than 50% of students will graduate within four years of matriculating college and 45% of students won’t finish within six years!

The Fifth Year

There are a variety of reasons why a four-year degree takes longer.

Students often don’t take enough courses per semester to fulfill their degree requirements within four years and may not realize this until they’re already behind in courses. Many courses fill up too quickly, preventing students from taking courses they actually need and contributing to enrollment in extra courses. And this is all assuming a student doesn’t change majors throughout their course of study.

For students who do change majors, the fifth- and sometimes sixth- year becomes even more likely. A new major means new required courses, which means delayed graduation. And unfortunately, students may not be aware of all their options for completing their degree in the least amount of time possible.

Combine these setbacks with financial obstacles and students will have an even more difficult time of completing their degree in four years. Many students opt to work part-time to offset college costs. For some students, having a job is necessary to afford college. The time commitment of having a job can make taking an additional course too difficult.

The Hidden Costs

College is expensive. According to a College Board report for 2013-2014, the average cost of attendance (including living expenses) for a year at private four-year institutions was $40,917. For public four-year institutions the average cost was $31,701 for out-of-state students and $18,391 for in-state students. That’s just one year.

Now add an additional year (or two) and account for the income a student loses being unable to work full-time because they’re completing their degree. While taking an extra year may be necessary to complete a degree, it’s important to realize the hidden costs associate with this: time and income. Extra time spent earning a degree takes away from the time a student could be building their career and earning an income.


So what are some steps students can take to work towards completing their degree in four years?

  • Take 15 credits per semester instead of just 12. Students can divide the amount of credits they need for graduation by eight semesters and determine how many courses they need to take each semester.
  • Take advantage of summer courses, which are less expensive and a quick way to complete requirements.
  • Limit working hours. If possible, students should limit the amount of hours they work at jobs so that they have enough time to take on the maximum amount of courses per semester.
  • Finally, it’s important for students to meet with advisors and discuss plans for completing a degree within four years. Periodic check-ins are crucial for staying on track. Often, students don’t know about their options or how to organize their academic semesters to meet their graduation needs and just need some guidance.
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Written by Melissa Hanan

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Melissa is passionate about all things STEM. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from Simmons College and an M.A. in Applied Psychology from Boston College where she became interested in biomedical devices and materials science. She is returning to Simmons College to pursue her dream of becoming an engineer.

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