5 reasons—other than cost—that students don't graduate

Communication has a lot to do with completion rates

As graduation season approaches, the excitement can overshadow a harsh reality: The students we're celebrating only make up 41% of those who entered college four years ago. 

As for the remaining 59% of students—the ones who won't be donning their caps and gowns this spring—there are a number of hurdles that could have gotten in their way.

National Student Clearinghouse research says cost is the number one reason students fail to complete college in four years. But cost isn't solely to blame. Here are five other reasons why 59% of the original class of 2017 won't be graduating on time:

1. They tried unsuccessfully to juggle work and school

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, students who work more than 25 hours per week struggle to pass their classes—in fact, only 45% of students who do so manage to keep their GPAs above 3.0.

For students who worry about the student loan debt they're racking up, working while attending college can seem like the only option. But according to Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, income-based loan repayment plans are designed for this very situation.  

How Temple University helps their highest-need students avoid working too much

2. No one told them how many credits to take            

Twelve credits per semester is the requirement for students to be legally considered "full time" and be eligible for Pell grants and other state and federal aid. But graduation usually requires 120 credits. To achieve that number in four years, most students actually need to take 15 credits per semester, not 12.

Rebecca Torstrick, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Indiana University, explains that most students aren't warned of this discrepancy—and end up taking too few credits to graduate on time. 

"15 to Finish" campaigns encourage students by offering 15 credits for the price of 12

3. They transferred schools, but their credits didn't come with them

While roughly a third of students transfer schools, 40% of transfer students don't get credit for completed courses. Even in cases where colleges agree to accept a student's credits, specific departments and majors are unlikely to do the same.

Maria Campanella, director of Stony Brook University's health sciences office, explains that lack of communication contributes to the issue. Students need to ask not only about how many of their credits will transfer, Campanella says, but also which credits will end up counting toward their majors or degrees.

One fix: Pre-admission credit evaluations for transfer applicants

4. They fell into the "exploration" trap

After a rigid high school curriculum, the freedom to choose between thousands of course options can seem liberating for college freshmen—but can ultimately prevent students from graduating on time.

Students overwhelmed by course choices often wait too long to take major requirements, only to discover those courses are full. 

How one university encourages students to plan ahead for course sequences

5. They didn't get involved

When students don't join clubs or communities, they often disengage. Social isolation can lead to depression and ultimately cause students to stop out altogether (Kolodner, New York Times, 4/6).

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