Get your kid to graduate in 4 years

  @Money March 6, 2013: 12:09 PM ET
graduate college pam

To graduate on time, see that your child takes at least 15 credits per semester.

(Money Magazine)

Stressing out about how you'll pay for four years of college?

You should be so lucky.

Most students take five to six years to earn an undergraduate degree, the Department of Education reports. That adds about $35,000 to the sticker price of attending a typical in-state public university and much more to the cost of most private colleges.

These moves will help your child get to the finish line in four years.

Pick a supportive school

Colleges with much-better-than-average graduation rates -- look for 50% and up at public colleges, 70% at private schools -- often have adopted strategies to help students finish in four years, says Tom Sugar of Complete College America, which works to boost the number of Americans with degrees.

Related: Colleges offer four-year graduation guarantees

Among them: capping graduation requirements for most majors at 120 credit hours; making sure students aren't crowded out of required courses; and identifying kids in danger of falling behind early on and assigning advisers to help them.

Still unproved are the graduation "guarantees" that a growing number of schools offer -- essentially, if your kid doesn't earn a degree in four years, the remaining tuition is on us. Be skeptical, Sugar says.

College grads, better start saving

To identify schools with superior track records, search for your target college's four-year grad rate at Then hit the "similar colleges" tab to find competitors with better outcomes.

Don't lighten the load

Your student's first college math lesson: Divide the 120 credits typically required for graduation into eight academic semesters, and he'll see that he needs to take at least 15 credits per semester, not the minimum 12 usually allowed.

To make sure Junior has plenty of time for academics, have him limit jobs to 12 hours or less a week.

Related: Guide to college savings plans

Changing majors, which can involve a new set of required courses, may also set a student back. A possible solution: Go with a related major that will accept many of his existing credits.

Get back on track cheaply

If a change of major or overcrowded courses threaten to delay graduation, your child may be able to fulfill requirements by taking summer or community college classes or a growing number of accredited online tests and courses.

Hundreds of colleges give credit for passing grades on the College Board's 33 College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests or the competing DSST's 38 exams. Cost: $80 per test.

Traditional colleges have been slow to grant credit for online or alternative tests or courses, so students should check with their registrar and department head before committing time or money to an off-campus class. To top of page

How the biggest schools stack up
Four-year graduation rates at the nation's largest colleges vary widely. Opting for a school where most students get their degree on time can save thousands.
Largest private colleges for "A" students
School Name Four-year grad rate Annual cost of attendance % getting grants
Notre Dame 90.0% $57,800 61%
Georgetown 88.9 60,100 51
U. of Pennsylvania 88.6 59,600 48
Boston College 87.2 59,000 47
Harvard 87.1 59,000 70
Duke 86.8 59,300 54
Northwestern 86.3 60,840 56
Cornell 85.9 59,600 55
Washington U. (St. Louis) 85.9 62,600 48
Vanderbilt 85.1 61,600 61
Columbia 84.6 62,600 53
Emory 82.4 58,200 57
New York University 79.3 62,900 55
Stanford 78.4 59,800 60
U. of Southern California 71.7 60,000 62
Largest private colleges for "B" students
School name Four-year grad rate Annual cost of attendance % getting grants
Syracuse 71.6% $55,600 71%
Loyola Marymount 71.1 56,900 86
Quinnipiac 69.9 54,000 84
Ithaca College 69.5 53,600 88
Duquesne 63.3 42,800 100
U. of St. Thomas 61.2 46,600 97
U. of Dayton 58.1 46,200 98
U. of San Francisco 55.8 56,600 70
Texas Christian U. 54.1 48,300 69
Baylor 50.4 51,200 96
Howard 47.8 41,500 68
DePaul 47.6 47,000 88
The New School 47.4 58,100 97
Hofstra 43.8 54,000 91
St. John's (New York) 36.4 55,500 95
Nation's largest public universities
School name Four-year grad rate Annual cost (in-state) % getting grants
U. of Ill. Urbana-Champaign 67.4% $29,000 46%
Penn. State (main campus) 62.3 28,100 37
U. of Florida 59.4 20,600 98
U. of Wash., Seattle 53.9 26,100 33
U. of Texas, Austin 52.5 24,900 54
Florida State 50.2 21,000 95
U. of Wisconsin, Madison 49.7 24,200 55
Indiana U., Bloomington 49.5 23,100 53
Ohio State (main campus) 48.6 24,900 70
Michigan State 48.5 24,700 48
Texas A&M 46.2 20,900 61
U. of Minnesota, Twin Cities 45.8 24,700 88
Purdue (main campus) 38.1 23,500 47
U. of Central Florida 34.8 20,300 95
Arizona State 32.3 23,000 83
NOTES: "A" schools reported their students scored an average of at least 1300 on the math and reading SATs (90th percentile and up); "B" schools reported their students scored 1080 to 1200 (61st to 80th percentiles). Costs are for 2012--13 and include tuition, fees, room, board, books, travel, and miscellaneous expenses; percentage getting grants includes scholarships.
SOURCE:, Department of Education, individual colleges
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