How Parents Can Help their Children Graduate from College

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The majority of college students do not graduate with a Bachelor’s degree within four years. That’s less than 50%! Even after six years, less than 60% of college students succeed in attaining a Bachelor’s degree.

Here are several tips on how parents can increase their child’s odds of college completion based on my book, Who Graduates from College? Who Doesn’t?

Get better grades in high school. Putting in the hard work and commitment in high school tends to prime students for success in college. Students with a higher grade point average (GPA) in high school and better admissions test scores are more likely to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree from college. Students who have an A average in high school are three times more likely to graduate from college than students with a C average. Test prep and tutoring can also yield an advantage. Limit non-academic activities to at most 2 hours a day.

Take challenging classes. Students at schools with a rigorous academic program or college preparatory program are more likely to graduate from college. Take Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, if available. Participate in dual enrollment programs, where high school students take college classes at a local college.

Math matters. Students who take more math classes in high school are more likely to graduate from college. It is especially important to take math classes beyond Algebra 2, such as trigonometry, pre-calculus, and calculus. Students who take math classes beyond Algebra 2 are more than twice as likely to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree.

Shop around for the best college. Applying for admission to several colleges, as opposed to just one, can increase the odds of graduating on time. Apply to a mix of 5-7 match, reach and safety schools. Identify colleges that are a good academic fit by comparing the student’s admissions test scores to the 25th and 75th percentile test scores using the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator website. Also consider college graduation rates and college affordability when choosing a college. Selective colleges will have better graduation rates than open admission colleges but may be more expensive.

Apply for financial aid. Students who file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are more likely to graduate. Students who win private scholarships, especially those who win more than $25,000, are more likely to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree. Running out of money is the top reason why students drop out of college.

Have a clear plan if you attend a 2-year college and your goal is a 4-year degree. Community colleges are good options if your goal is an Associate’s degree or certificate. If your goal is a Bachelor’s degree, taking a detour through a 2-year college will take some extra planning. Only about a fifth of students who start off at a 2-year college, intending to obtain a Bachelor’s degree, succeed in doing so within six years. That compares with two-thirds of students who start off at a public or private non-profit 4-year college. If you start off at a 2-year college, know which credits will transfer and how they will be treated so you do not waste valuable time and money.

Enroll full-time in college. Students who enroll full-time are more likely to graduate, even when accounting for the slower pace of part-time enrollment. They are able to focus more on academics. Students who enroll full-time in college are five times more likely to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree within six years as compared with students who enroll part-time. Even though taking 12 credits a semester is considered full-time, you need to take (and pass) 15 credits a semester to graduate in four years.

Live on campus. Students who live on-campus, as opposed to living in an off-campus apartment or with their parents, are more likely to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree. Living on-campus keeps you in the mix of things, letting you benefit from informal learning opportunities, such as studying with friends and working on problem sets together.

Be cautious about working full-time in college. There is a slight advantage to working a part-time job in college, perhaps because it forces students to learn time management skills. But the emphasis should be on part-time, if possible for the student. Students who work a full-time job are half as likely to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree as compared with students who work 12 hours or less per week. Conflicts between school, home and work life are one of the main reasons why students drop out of college. However, some students may need to work more than 12 hours to help pay for college costs. Make sure to have a good plan on how to organize the commitments from home, work, and academics.

Don’t transfer to another college or change academic majors. Students who switch programs are less likely to graduate on-time, or at all. Not every credit will count toward the new major or transfer to the new college, so the student will lose progress toward their degree. This will also increase college costs.

Don’t take a gap year or delay college enrollment. Some students never return from a gap year. When they do return, only about half will ultimately graduate with a Bachelor’s degree. Taking a leave of absence, or stop out, will also reduce college graduation rates.

Get involved and set high expectations. Students are more likely to graduate from college if their parents are involved in their education and expect them to graduate. Start by creating a college-going environment that emphasizes academics. Join the PTA and participate in their programs. Attend parent-teacher conferences. Make sure your student is engaged in high school and college. If they feel like they belong, they are more likely to graduate. The student’s peers can also influence their expectations about the highest level of educational attainment.

If the parents do not themselves have a Bachelor’s degree, encourage the student to find a role model who does have a Bachelor’s degree.

Become financially literate. When students and parents know how to manage their money, instead of letting their money manage them, the student is more likely to graduate from college. Learn about saving, budgeting, and borrowing. Evaluate colleges based on the net price, which is the difference between total college costs and the gift aid, such as grants and scholarships. If your school or college doesn’t offer a financial literacy class, there are many free classes available online. Look on the U.S. Department of Education’s Financial Literacy for All website for a good guide to online resources.

The insights in this article are based on my analyses of several government databases, including the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS), Education Longitudinal Study (ELS), High School and Beyond (HS&B), High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09), and National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) databases. These databases are used to identify the variables that influence postsecondary outcomes.


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