Why Aren’t College Students Graduating in Four Years?

“Only 19% of full-time students” graduate with their bachelor’s degree in four years, according to the New York Times (from a study done by completecollege.org). In addition, CompleteCollege.org estimates an average loss of almost $70,000 per extra year (combining the total cost of the year of college and loss of wages from that year). Why would students be willing to take that extra cost? I think the bulk of the problem comes from lack of planning, and colleges and high school don’t do a good job of helping students decide what they want to do.


USA Today College cites a “lack of a clear plan or advising” as one of the main reasons college kids don’t graduate in four years. If students were held more accountable for planning courses early on, they would have a better chance of graduating “on time”. At least in my high school, there wasn’t anything we did that directly helped us pick from hundreds of majors, or thousands of careers.

A lack of planning isn’t just the student’s fault, and many students don’t decide what major or career path they won’t to follow when the begin college. This can become a major detour in the road towards four-year graduation. As a student, it’s terrifying to think about the future and the answers to questions like “what’s your major” and “what do you want to be when you grow up”. However, I don’t think high school or college does a very good job with helping students discern their goals before picking out their first college classes.

This general loss of sense of direction can slow down a student, and make it difficult to complete all the required classes in four years. With some work on both sides, I think it would be much better for students to have the opportunity to use advisors and other resources to talk seriously about their future and try to figure things out beforehand, so they can be on the right path towards beating the odds and finishing their bachelor’s degree in four years. Instead of just picking classes right before every new semester, each student should work with their advisors to make an individualized map, and then change it as needed.

Most students can’t put their finger on what they want to do and stick with it (like Elle Woods did in Legally Blonde),


but it would be useful for students to have serious talks with advisors, parents, or teachers to face the decision earlier. The current progression of education doesn’t really force  or help students to decide what they want to do, and students are basically left alone to pick a major. According to an article from MSNBC News, 50% of students change their major, and 80% aren’t sure of their major before they get to college.


Programs like Florida States “exploratory” major help students take a variety of classes in different areas of study so that they can be more confident when they do declare a major. Students who end up changing their major are often penalized, in the form of “wasted” credits, excess credit hours, or being behind pace.


If there was some type of program or class in high school that allowed students to start exploring different majors before college, they would have more time to figure things out, and even time to change their minds before it matters, in terms of college credits. In  college, students could benefit from utilizing their advisors to talk through possible options, learn about opportunities in the majors, and create an academic plan. If students were more focused on the “big picture”, from their first to last semester of college, I think more students would be graduating in four years, or on track with their own schedule.

I’m a part of FSU’s Degree in Three program, where students are assisted by advisors to graduate in three years or less. In this program, I was given another advisor through the program, in addition to my regular advisor. I sat down with both of them to pick all my classes for each semester until I graduate. In doing this, I was able to choose exactly what semester I want to graduate, and then fill in classes for every semester until then. The academic plan I created is flexible, but it allowed me to think seriously about each class I will take. All students could benefit from this type of advising so that they can see the exact set of courses they need, and then each semester will be deliberate, instead of leaving students on their own to “float” from semester to semester.

If students had to set up a course plan ahead of time, it would give them another opportunity to assess whether their major is what they truly want to study, and they could also experiment with how minors and electives fit into their schedule. While a four-year plan isn’t for everyone, choosing a graduation date and making a plan beforehand would hold students more accountable, and hopefully make it easier for them to graduate in their chosen amount of time.







I'm Kristen, a small business owner living in the sunny state of Florida. I blog about running my Etsy shop (Lemon and Lily Co.), small business tips, & lifestyle content. I'm all about community over competition & finding the joy in every day.


  1. Jim Kilton
    November 22, 2016

    I wish you could share your thoughts with every student in high school as well as COllege.
    Hen you consider not only the extra expense but eventually graduating with a degree that really is no what the student really wants to do it a shame. Not to say anything about the burden on their families.
    Nice to see you have your ducks in a row.
    Love Grandpa

    1. kristenshane
      November 23, 2016

      I’m glad my ambitions are clear! Thanks for reading, always great to hear from you!

  2. Esther Jackson
    December 23, 2018

    That is reason # 30 why I don’t plan on going to college.


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