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College costs, and by extension, student debt, have gotten out of hand.

There are numerous ideas and opinions on how to best address the student loan crisis, ranging from federal debt forgiveness to universities shouldering part of the burden. Ultimately, however, we cannot disregard individual accountability. The most viable solution right now: do your best to find ways to avoid or minimize student debt. 

I know. I know. Duh, right?

But did you know that only 45% of full-time college students complete their degree within four years?

One of the more common reasons for students spiraling into debt is that they spend more time in school than necessary. Although this is only one part of the student loan issue, I think it is a good place to start.

Financial Impact of Additional Years in College

The financial impact of a fifth or sixth year in college is substantial and almost always requires student loans.

Let’s assume $25,000 per year for tuition plus room and board. Since most scholarships and aid do not extend beyond four years, a fifth or sixth-year student will probably have to take out even more loans.  If you also consider that each additional year spent in school means a year not earning an income, the financial burden easily surpasses $50,000 per year.

Let’s relate this to a real situation. One of our coaches had two daughters who attended the same private university with a $60,000 per year sticker price. One additional year – remember, with no scholarships and financial aid – would cost over $100,000. For this reason, it is crucial to help your student keep track of how many credit hours they are taking and ensure that they remain aware of what is needed to achieve their degree.

Life is Unpredictable: Plan for Contingencies

While it seems as easy as signing up for 15 credit hours each semester to get to 120 in four years, life happens. Students drop classes, change their major, develop health issues, transfer to other schools, or enter a relationship that might influence their decisions about scheduling or their focus on academics.

We talked with one of our student correspondents who attends Virginia Tech. Here’s her take: 

Freshman year, I made a four-year plan of my coursework on excel. Then, I performed poorly in my General Chemistry class and dropped it! I had to rearrange my plan as this class was a prerequisite for other classes. That spring semester of freshman year, I took 1-2 classes that I had been planning to take my sophomore year in place of the classes I was supposed to take but couldn’t because of my non-fulfilled prerequisite class. I retook the chemistry class that next summer and was back on track by the fall semester.

Bottom line: if life happens (it will), do not procrastinate figuring out your next steps! The last thing you want is for it to be senior year, and you realize you can’t graduate on time because you forgot to retake that Gen Chem class!”

Many students may be unaware of the requirements needed to graduate.  Students should aim to complete 15 credits a semester;  unfortunately, since 12 credits are the minimum for college enrollment and financial aid, many perceive this number as the standard path to graduation. Check your school’s website for degree checklists and paths to graduation. These are vital resources to use.

Sit down with your child and ensure they understand the necessity of graduating within four years. Make sure he or she lays out a path to graduation with an academic adviser and continues to check in with said adviser to make sure they’re on track.

Even with a guide, it is your student, ultimately, who must take responsibility, chart their path, and adapt as needed.

If something does happen that causes them to fall behind, they should seriously consider taking an online course or a class or two over the summer to get caught up. It is usually not worth piling on another year’s student debt to avoid taking summer classes.

Preparing Buffers for the Unpredictable: Proactive Steps You Can Take In High School and College

Ultimately, life takes everyone along for the ride, whether we like it or not. We cannot plan for everything. But we can take steps to give ourselves flexibility in the future to mitigate unforeseen obstacles that might knock us off course.

For example, many people overlook the steps they can take in high school to prepare for the unpredictable. There are options out there: AP, Dual Enrollment, Dual Credit, and Early College classes can preemptively give college students more flexibility with their schedules by allowing them to earn credits while in high school. 

We discuss these items in more detail in our post on graduating early to save thousands of dollars.

The point is the numbers don’t lie. We need to pay closer attention if we want to help ensure our children graduate in four years with as little student debt as possible.

Do you have a plan to pay for four years of college without sacrificing your retirement?

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Related Reading:

14 Ways to Minimize Student Loans

College Financial Aid – Know the New Rules!

Navigating Your Undergraduate Student Loan Options Wisely

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