May 11, 2017. By Jennifer Wolfsberg:

Graduation season brings wonderful memories to many of us. Memories of classmates that became lifelong friends, dynamic professors and mentors, and coursework that changed our outlook and laid the path for what would later become our careers and passions.  If you are like me, you may have even be fortunate enough to find your spouse at college as well.  As we continue to work closely with our clients and their families, we have been very fortunate to counsel the next generation who are high school and college aged students.  In our discussions, we continue to see a trend in higher education that is not isolated to the traditional headlines.  We have all read the interesting articles or have had personal experience reading through a university invoice to see the myriad of fees that seem to add insult to injury for registration, lab, technology fees and the like. Over the last two years, however, we have experienced firsthand alongside many families the issue of education extension, with many students not finishing their undergraduate degree within four years.  The frequency of a fifth or sixth year, additional semester, or summer classes is on the rise for several reasons. This trend is negatively affecting family budgets, yet benefiting the university or college.

While there are exceptions to every rule, and each student’s personal needs may differ, we are seeing this ongoing theme with many schools and hope to outline several key items below that a student, parent or mentor should consider graduating in four years is indeed their objective. Here are some key items to be aware of:

  • Course Availability: Many students blame an extension on the fact that they are unable to get into required courses associated with their major due to limited availability or scheduling conflicts. This is surprising since the school knows how many students have been accepted into a given program. Given this information, the number of openings per class should be easily determined with those with that major receiving priority for that course registration. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and many are being blocked out of crucial courses. Students should perform diligent research prior to entering a program or school regarding this problem. The school should be able to readily provide average 4-year completion rates for each major of study.
  • Semesters Abroad: While the studying abroad is a tremendously positive experience many students find that some class credits are not transferable, or that they are missing a mandatory class that is only offered during the semester they are away, thereby creating the need to take summer classes or extend into another semester. If additional classes are indeed required, students should consider taking the extra requirements at community or local colleges then transferring the credits in to lighten the hit on the family college budget.
  • Ease of Work Load: While some students may do best with lighter schedules due to the complexity of the coursework or personal learning challenges, many are simply misguided to a lighter schedule of 3-4 classes. College advisors and policy changes are now saying this lighter schedule is considered “full time” status, basically discouraging students from graduating in four years.  It is more important than ever for students to actively self-advocate and continually consult with their advisor to ensure they are on track to graduate on time.
    • Inflated Tuition- Some students (and school advisors) may argue that spreading the course load over the summer and winter semesters to alleviate stress in the fall and spring semesters will have the same cost since technically the same amount of credits will be taken on an annual basis. It is important to recognize, however, that courses during breaks are typically more expensive due to the costs incurred by the school to keep the campus open during off-times. Additionally, tuitions are inflating at an annual rate of 6%. In other words, it is to the benefit of the institution, not the family, to have the student take a course at a later date since they will in turn be paying a higher tuition for the same course.
  • Parental Communication: Parents should communicate with their children about the timeline or the total budget for their education… if loans are part of this process (which is often necessary for most families and not necessarily a bad financing strategy) the student needs to fully understand how this education time extension affects their long-term debt and the interest rate associated; with most loan structures, interest accrues at the time of disbursement and not at graduation.

The college years are exciting and as parents and family members we want to see our beloved students have the best experience possible.  These years, however, are also provide prime learning opportunities regarding responsibility and accountability. Do not be afraid to have these frank discussions with your students as it will only benefit them in the future.