An Important Factor in Cutting College Costs

By on May 10, 2016

When parents save for college, they assume that they will need to cover four years of expenses to pay for a bachelor’s degree.

However, statistics show that most college students take longer than the traditional eight semesters to graduate.

Here are the latest graduation rates from the U.S. Department of Education:

Four-Year Graduation Rates

  • Public colleges and universities:  33%
  • Private, nonprofit colleges and universities: 53%

Six-Year Graduation Rates

  • Public colleges and universities: 57%
  • Private, nonprofit colleges and universities: 65%

Check Graduation and Retention Rates

One of the best ways to reduce your college costs is to focus on schools where your child has a good chance of graduating from college on time. You also need to check each college’s freshman retention rate, the percentage of students who stick around for their sophomore year.

Transferring to another college can be a traumatic experience for a student and it can also make a bachelor’s degree far more expensive. Transfer statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicate that an alarming percentage of students ultimately transfer out of their original colleges.

Among four-year institutions, 36.5% of students who start at a public college or university end up transferring elsewhere and 34.3% of students at private nonprofit schools transfer too.  One of the disadvantages of transferring is that the student often loses academic credits, which will prolong the time spent in college.

Graduation Rate Sources

Here are reliable sources for four-year graduation rates:

College Completion: Microsite of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

College Results Online: Creation of The Education Trust. This resource also provides freshman retentions.

Why are Graduation Rates So Low?

Not surprisingly, the most elite private schools, which primarily educate wealthy students, enjoy high four-year graduation rates. The affluent students at these schools are among the best prepared for the rigors of college education.

Outside of these select institutions, there are many reasons for low graduation rates. In California, for instance, students at many state universities often can’t enroll in the classes that they need because of overcrowding. An inability to obtain classes leads to more students dropping out or switching to part-time status, which in turn leads to lower graduation rates.

Here are some sample graduation rates for California’s public universities:

  • University of California, Berkeley  72%
  • UCLA 69%
  • University of California, San Diego 56%
  • University of California, Santa Cruz 50%
  • San Diego State University  33%
  • California State, Long Beach  14%
  • California State, Fullerton 14%
  • San Francisco State 13%
  • San Jose State 8%

Another explanation for low graduation rates is how the federal government calculates them. An institution’s graduation rate is lowered if they have a large number of students who don’t return after their freshman year. The federal calculation counts those who departed as never graduating from their original school.

Here’s another reason:  some marginal students should never have aimed for a four-year college. Eighty percent of students in the bottom quarter of their high school classes never earn a bachelor’s or associate’s degree.  Many drop out of college with student debt that can be a financial disaster.

Explore the reason for low graduation rates

A lackluster graduation rate shouldn’t be an automatic deal breaker. If a graduation rate is troubling, check with the institution to see what it takes to graduate in four years.

Being in an honors college at a state university, for instance, could make the path to a four-year degree smoother. In contrast, students pursuing engineering, nursing or some other majors might find it difficult to graduate in the traditional eight semesters at some institutions.


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