The Path To Graduation: What’s Your Student’s Timeline?


Your student has graduated from high school and is headed off to college, and you are picturing that next commencement ceremony in another four years.  Or perhaps your student has been in college for a year or two and you see that commencement just around the corner.  When your student walks across that stage it will be a big moment, and you are anxious for the celebration – and the last tuition bill.

But there is a possibility that your student’s college commencement may not be exactly four years after high school graduation.  Although four years of college is still the norm at most elite private colleges, more and more students may be completing their college education on an individual timeline.  According to one study, only approximately 54% of students at private colleges graduate in four years.  The percentage at public colleges may be closer to 32%.  That means that many students may not graduate at all, and many students who do graduate may take significantly longer than four year to complete their education.  Five or six years of college may soon be the norm for the majority of students.

As a college parent, you may not want to think about your student continuing in college for more than four years.  Certainly, you may be thinking about additional tuition bills.  However, as college parents, we also recognize that our students are unique individuals.  Each student’s path may be different and may contain different roadblocks and detours.  It may be important that you have a conversation with your student about your expectations.  Is there a limitation on how many semesters of tuition you can fund?  If your student needs an extra semester, or an extra year, or two, to complete his education, will he need to pay a portion of the cost?  Might it depend on the reasons for the extra time?

Why might my college student need longer than four years to finish?

There are many factors that may influence a student’s college timeline. 

  • Some students will not adjust easily to college and so may struggle at the beginning and need to make up for lost credits. 
  • Some students may change to a different major which will require them to take additional courses. 
  • Some students may find that when they transfer to another school they lose some credits.
  • Some students may opt for a specialized experience such as a year of studying abroad or a particular internship that will mean a loss of credits.
  • Some students may need to take a break from school or find that they have been dismissed from school and need to wait out a semester or a year. 

Some college personnel use the term “swirling” to refer to students who start college, then stop, or transfer, or move from part time to full time and possibly back again to part time.  The traditional, full-time, straight-out-of-high-school, finish-college-in-four-years student may become the minority. 

If we remember that we want the best for our student, and that each student has different needs and abilities, we may need to adjust our thinking to include a more flexible timeline. The college experience is a phase of life, and not every student will proceed through this phase at the same rate.  It may take patience and understanding for us, as parents, to accept that our student may need more than four years to complete his college degree, but he may need our support more than ever as he finds his own path to success.


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The Student Protection Plan is a benefit program for College Parents of America, a national membership organization, and is managed by Next Generation Insurance Group. The description of coverage provided is for information purposes only. Actual coverage will be based on the terms and conditions of the benefits provided and may vary slightly dependent on state regulatory requirements.

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