The cost of completing a college degree is higher than ever! That cost is even higher for the many students who take five to six years to earn an undergraduate degree. With a year of college costing $17,500 at a typical in-state public university and much more at a private university, every extra year increases the price of your degree. Making careful choices of major and college will improve your odds of graduating on time with a degree that leads to a well-paying job. You can improve your chances of graduating even more by making graduating on time a priority.
Choose the Right Major
Will the major you choose be in demand when you graduate? Will a job in the field give the income you expect? These are important questions to answer before you choose a college. Your first assignment is to identify your interests. Ask yourself these questions:
- What subjects are of greatest interest to you? Did you excel in these subjects in school?
- What activities do you enjoy in your free time? Do these offer insights into your long-term interests?
- What career sounds most interesting to you? Have you visited people with jobs in this field? Do you know what tasks they do daily? What might you like best and least about these jobs? How much education do you need for an entry-level job? Might other jobs in this field be of interest? What opportunities would a career in this field give you for advancement? Would a career in this field provide enough income for the way you want to live?
- What is the outlook for jobs in this career?
If you are unsure what major to choose, talk to people who know you—family, friends, school counselor, teachers—to find out what strengths they see in you. Research careers of interest by using library and internet resources. Ask your school counselor about tests and other resources that may help you choose. If you still cannot decide, consider taking basic courses at a community college while you continue to test your options.
Choose the Right College
Next, you will need to research colleges that offer the major you chose. Find out how much support is available and how long it typically takes students to complete a degree then try to find out whether completing the program will lead to a well-paying job.
The school you choose should offer the support you need to graduate on time. Ask these questions about each school you consider:
- How many credit hours does it take to complete the program? How does the school make sure majors have access to required courses?
- What supports does the school give students who are struggling?
- What percent of the students graduate in four years? How does this figure compare with the graduation rates at similar schools?
- What strategies does the school use to help students finish in four years?
To check the track records of the school you are considering, search for the college’s four-year graduation rate at collegeresults.org. Use the “similar colleges” tab to find schools with higher rates.
Equally important, completing the program should lead to a well-paying job. The following questions will help you find programs that are likely to do so:
- Is the program respected by people in your chosen career field?
- Does the program provide current information and resources? Does it use up-to-date equipment?
- What is the placement record for majors in your chosen career field? How long does it take students who complete the program to find a job? What percent of students who complete the program find well-paying jobs in the field or in a related field? What are the average starting salaries and employment rates for typical graduates with this degree?
- Is the potential salary worth the cost of the degree?
You will find several new online tools for evaluating college costs in the following article: http://money.cnn.com/2013/01/01/pf/college/college-salary.moneymag/index.html.
Make Graduating on Time a Priority
Researching colleges and majors cannot guarantee that you will graduate or that you will graduate on time. That depends on whether the college and the major you choose is right for you. More important, it depends on how seriously you apply yourself to the task of completing a degree and completing it on time. Here are some things you can do to make that happen:
- Determine how many credit hours you need to take each semester. If your major requires 120 credits for graduation, simply divide 120 credits by eight academic semesters. The results show that you will need to take (and pass) at least 15 credits per semester. (Note: That is more than the minimum of 12 credit hours used by many colleges for full-time students.)
- Determine how many hours per week to work, if any. If possible, work full-time during the summer to avoid working during fall and spring semesters. If you must work during the regular school year, try to limit work hours to 12 hours or less.
- Avoid losing credit hours if you change majors. Changing majors may mean loss of credit hours for courses you have completed. If you realize that the major you chose is wrong for you, decide to switch sooner not later to lose fewer credits. If possible, go with a related major that uses existing credits.
- Allot plenty of time for academics. At the beginning of the semester, study the syllabus for each class carefully. Note deadlines and test dates in a student planner. Make attending class regularly and being on time a priority. Complete required reading before each class. Take notes. Allow plenty of time to complete major papers and projects plus some for unexpected problems. Be sure to turn in all assignments on time. Start reviewing well in advance instead of studying all night before a test. If you need help, visit with your instructor, join a study group, or get a tutor. Remember—completing a degree is your highest priority!
- Schedule time for rest and relaxation. A college environment often provides the temptation to stay up late, party, and spend too much time on recreational activities. While these are part of the college experience, remember to keep such activities in check.
- Do what it takes to get back on track, if needed. If a change of major, a low grade, or a course overload jeopardizes your goal of graduating on time, consider taking online, summer, or community college classes to catch up. Find out whether your college gives credit for passing grades on the College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests or completing DSST exams. To make sure that these options will count toward your degree, check with your college registrar and department head before committing your time and money.
What else can you do to increase your chances of graduating on time with a degree that leads to a well-paying job?