Pursue Graduation in Four Years Like Your Hair is on Fire

I think most of us would agree that going to college is a good thing if done right. That is only half the story.  Once you get into your dream college, you have to graduate from that school. As of 2014, about 70% of American don’t have college degrees by age 27. Of all those who have taken some college classes, only about 19% of students graduate in four years.  Even in flagship schools, the four-year graduation rate is 36%. Why aren’t our American students pursuing graduation in four years like their hair is on fire?

Students aren’t doing a good job of prioritizing college as a dedicated goal. Colleges aren’t doing a good job of making four-year graduation a primary focus for students.  As students take longer, the percentage of those graduating goes down. This is intuitive because it is harder and more expensive to keep dedicating yourself to a difficult task the longer it takes.

Let’s look at what it takes to graduate from college. As parents, we can help our students get through the rigors of a college education and both of us will be better off for it in the long run. Making a four-year college timetable our goal will lead to higher graduation rates among our kids and get them out into the workforce so they can accomplish their dreams and goals.


Look at College as an Investment

Like many other aspects of life, I think we should look at college as an investment. It takes time and money. The whole reason we help our kids get into college is for the degree. The experience is fine but without the degree, it is a huge waste of money from an investment perspective. 

We want a return on our investment. If we do the math, the bottom acceptable number for a college education should give you at least a 16x multiple over 40 years for the cost of tuition, books, and fees. Whatever the college costs, if you took that same amount of money and invested it in the market at a 7% return, it’s worth 16 times what you put in 40 years. A $100,000 college is costing you $1.6 million by the end of your career. If you have a forty-year career (while most of us with early retirement on our minds would prefer less) then you should try to make sure whatever the cost of college is, you make more than enough to get what you could have done without the degree. The Economist has a great graphic that shows the return on investment for various colleges. 


graduation in four years


Those that graduate have better jobs

One study says that college graduates make 84% more than a high school graduate on average. $2.3 million over a lifetime compared to $1.3 million.  Another study showed college graduates earn $17,500 more per year than their high school graduate counterparts. Unemployment for high school grads is down to 64% from 73% from 2007 to 2015. For college graduates, it only dipped one percent from 84% to 83% in the same time period.

Depending on the cost of the college, it would seem that, on average, the cost is worth it.  If you are making an extra $17,500 a year, depending on the college, you should be able to recoup that investment in a relatively short time.  The cost of college is easily covered over the timeline of an average career.  I know that each degree type will contribute to the final income and earning potential of our students, but overall a college education is becoming what it takes to just get into the middle class of America.


When our kids graduate, we are more likely to succeed

If our kids graduate from college, we are investing in our own futures. As we have seen, college degrees set up our children to make more money and potentially be more self-sufficient.  As parents, our kids tug at our heartstrings when they are in trouble. We naturally don’t want them to experience pain, but sometimes that is exactly what they need to grow. Maybe it shouldn’t be called pain so much as discomfort. I’m continually telling my kids to embrace the discomfort they are feeling when learning or working because that is an opportunity to grow.

With our kids earning a higher income, that allows us to put more aside for retirement and potentially retire early.  I don’t know about you, but I hope to be using my financial independence to give to my kids and my grandkids. With children not continually coming back to mom and dad for help with expenses, that gives us more freedom to help and be an influence on our grandkids and our communities around us.  I’m looking forward to that opportunity someday.

When we help our kids graduate from college, we are setting up a lineage of financially responsible adults. Then the cycle of financial responsibility and self-sufficiency can continue for generations to come. 



What type of school has the highest graduation rates?

This is a list of the top schools in the US with graduation rates over 85%. These are the schools with top earning potential after graduation.  These are the schools that I would prioritize if you can afford them. 

graduation in four years

                                                  Harvard’s graduation rate is 97.5%

 I always heard that the attrition rate for my college within the university at the state school I attended was 70%.  That doesn’t mean that 70% of the kids dropped out and didn’t graduate. That just means 70% of incoming freshmen that declared majors in the college of natural sciences decided against or couldn’t hack it to graduate with a degree from that division. I took that as a badge of honor that I was able to finish, but in reality, I want a school that helps my student achieve the goal to graduate. 

Once our kids are locked into a school, it is usually more expensive to change. With the fees that schools impose and potential moving cost to another university, we are just adding more financial burden to the college process. Look at the school’s graduation rate and the potential salary based on the degree plan.  I know these aren’t the only factors, but it is an important part of the discussion to include these facts when selecting a university. 



How does time factor into success with graduation?

In USA one-third of student take Advanced Placement Exams (AP). 20% of them earn grades that get college credit (3, 4 or 5). These test can help students finish in four years. As we have seen, only 19% of entering freshmen graduate in four years.  This varies from college to college so look at the individual statistics. Starting with credit when entering campus puts your students a step ahead of the rest. 

Dual credit is another option to get a head start on earning college credits. The local community colleges in your area will likely offer theses course. Whether you homeschool or go to public school, your students are likely eligible for these classes.  The student will likely have to take a placement test to see which classes are appropriate but once those tests are passed, the student can begin dual credit classes and earn sometimes up to 42 college credits depending on the state in which you reside. 

Costs are 25-50% higher if you take one or two years longer to graduate. The higher the costs the more likely you need to stop because of financial trouble. It is human nature for tasks to become more difficult the longer they take.  As parents, we should stress to our kids that full-time college is the priority during this time in their lives.  We should encourage them to go full-time. 

Helping our kids think through the degrees they are interested in and picking classes that will contribute towards that degree will speed up the process. If they are unsure of a specific degree but have a general idea, they should select classes that will apply to several different degree plans. 


How does working factor into graduating?

graduation in four years

                      Hospital job had its perks


If we encourage our kids to get jobs that relate to the field they are interested in, that can help them see what they are getting into. I pursued a job at the hospital since I was interested in medicine. Another one of my friends clerked at the state capitol building since she was interested in political science and politics.  I know my job not only helped me with future networking but gave me a great idea of what I would be dealing with if I pursued medicine.

As discussed in Skin in the Game, students that work during school tend to have higher grades and make higher salaries when they graduate. Though graduation rates can suffer slightly, I think the overall benefit of working will help your students when they graduate.

Another factor that will ultimately help is to stay busy. If your students have to manage their time and have a schedule, the better of they will be once they get a job in the real world.  Typical college schedules only have students in the classroom for 15 hours a week. That leaves plenty of time for work, service, and leisure.  Incorporating aspects of each of those are important and learning to keep busy without over indulging in one part of those activities will help the student succeed. If we include summer classes and the ability to take one extra class here and there per semester, the opportunity to graduate in four years is much more realistic.


What should schools have to help your student graduate?

The college your student chooses should have programs in place to help with graduation. Some schools have counselors specifically to make sure students are progressing on their degree plans in a timely manner.

My own university had a health careers office. That resource was invaluable in helping me get into medical school. That office provided a counselor. She ultimately wrote me a letter of recommendation and introduced me to several medically related service projects. Those provided an excellent experience to put on my professional school applications.

City University of New York’s community college has added programs to help its students graduate on time. 

Other schools have seminars that show students how to spend four years or less in college. Some schools offer internships in companies related to your student’s degree plan. These internships can help the student stay motivated. Students have the opportunity to ask what is expected of them when applying for jobs in the companies.

What we can do to help

High income earners should encourage our kids to have a strong intensity on finishings school on time. We want them to start earning an income. When I was in school, every year that I was deferring my earning potential and watching my loan interest increase was another dagger in my heart. We should teach our kids to have that mindset. Delaying school when they could have finished on time and delaying earning potential just makes attaining their financial goals that much harder.

Like my aunt always told me, “Tom, you are going to work the rest of your life. You might as well like what you do.”

The harder our kids work now, the faster they get to graduation. The quicker they graduate, the faster they can meet their ultimate goals.

There is still time to enjoy the college experience. I graduated on time, spending four years on my bachelor’s degree, four years of medical school and four years in residency. I loved college. Of all my schooling, my undergraduate experience was my favorite, but I worked hard during that time. Our kids can work hard too, finish on time and still have a great experience.


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Tom is a doctor, husband and father of five with a passion for parenting and finance. When he isn't skateboarding, riding BMX, or jumping on the trampoline with his kids, he is reading and writing about personal finance. He helps high income parents educate and mentor their kids to become financially, emotionally, and intellectually self sufficient.

15 Responses to “Pursue Graduation in Four Years Like Your Hair is on Fire

  • I finished college in 3 years to save a year of tuition. I went to George Washington which was super expensive. Through a combination of high school AP course credits and a summer course I was able to cut a year and like $25 k in debt out of my college spending.

    I think senior year would have been nice, but I never felt deprived of not having it. 3 years was enough and considering I went to medical school afterwards, it was like I was still in school.

    Nice post and thoughts on this important topic for parents.

    • That’s awesome EJ. School potentially cost you half of what someone who took six years to graduate spent.
      Here in Texas our kids could go into school with 42 hours if they max out their dual credit opportunities. We are working with them to get that done. That would be the equivalent of saving over entire college education for us if all five kids do it. That’s real money. Thanks for stopping by!

      Tom @ HIP

  • I graduated in three years by taking some summer classes at my community college. While I enjoyed college I knew that I couldn’t wait to get into the real world and start making money. So I pushed as hard as I could to graduate as quickly as possible. I have a few friends that decided to become super seniors and they turned out fine but definitely wandered for a little bit 🙂

    • It seems the financial community is full of people that know what they want and go out and get it. Thats great Rob.
      I’m sure you can do fine taking more time. My wife took five years herself and I think it was a great decision for her because it allowed her to work in a job that was in higher demand when I was going to medical school. That saved us some money during that time.
      It did cause her to take out a loan for that year though. She had a full four year ride, but when she added the extra year it cost us.

      Tom @ HIP

  • My daughter took 5 years due to changing schools in the middle to pursue her nursing degree and having to take some additional requirements at the new school, but my son finished in four, fortunately. Very proud of both of them. Great post, Tom!

    • It is really difficult to graduate in four years when you pursue a nursing degree. Especially when you don’t start in the career path from the get go.
      Finishing a degree is definitely something to be proud of. Thanks for saying hi Amy.

      Tom @ HIP

  • I think my background might be a bit different. I graduated from a school commonly voted as a best value. They touted the fact that few would make it to graduation and that the school was tough as nails. It was part of the culture. In fact, it’s number two on your return list. I’d say tough to graduate is fine so long as that’s the culture your kid understands before they go there. Day one: “look to your left, look to your right. Only one of you three will graduate with your chosen degree from this school”. College in my case was still enjoyable, but engineering school is a different animal to other types of universities.

    • It seems every time I look at these best bang for the buck colleges Georgia Tech is near the top. Engineering is no joke.
      It sounds like your school was what medical school used to be. They’ve since tried harder to get everyone to graduate that gets into medical school. Thanks FTF!

      Tom @ HIP

  • Dood, el Farbe
    8 months ago

    Hi Tom, good post and it’s interesting to me that I ran into this post today. I saw a young lady in the grocery last night, a clerk who I recognized but hadn’t seen in a while because she’s in college and mostly only comes home (and works at this store) over summer and Christmas breaks. I asked if she’d graduated yet and she said no, she’s just completed her fifth year (!) and has one more semester left to complete her BA

    I asked if she’d changed majors or something midstream that caused it to take so long and she said no, the school administration strongly *encourages* them to only take, at maximum, 12 hours per semester, and they suggest 10 is better[1].

    I could only thank her for the conversation and walk away quietly shaking my head. My UG (chemical engineering) was 138 hours so we were taking 17 hours most semesters and sometimes 18 (no AP in the “when/where” I went to high school). We were strongly warned that we were expected to be done in 4 years or face getting booted. Since I was working about 30 hours a week, I did what you suggested above and took what was considered a “full load” for the shortened summer semester in each of the 3 summers.

    Proudly I’ll add that my daughter #1/4 is starting college this fall (dual ChE and pre-med) and although her curriculum is a little lighter on the hours (132) than my school was, the full curriculum is still 16 or 17 hours each semester. I think she’s got five “5” and several “4” AP scores and is taking 5 more AP classes this final semester (test results in July), so hopefully those will lighten the load a bit, depending on which are of value for her curriculum (the wife knows, I just don’t have the info stored in my brain).

    [1] I can only assume this is rent-seeking behavior, but maybe that’s too harsh.

    • That is a crime that the administrators would give that kind of advice. Good for her for sticking with it, but she could have been well on her way making an income by now and would have saved two years in living expenses.
      Your daughter on the other hand is doing awesome. She’ll be a sophomore at least before she even sets foot on campus. She must have smart parents. 🙂
      Thanks for stopping by.

      Tom @ HIP

  • Dood, el Farbe
    8 months ago

    Thanks Tom. I’m actually softly dissuading my oldest (the one starting college this fall) from pursuing MD based on quite a bit of reading that details the opportunity cost years lost before the MD starts catching up/passing the BS-only peers.

    For example there is (article linked below). However, this article also seems “cardio-centric”, if you get my drift, in that I think there may be any number of MD professional directions that don’t require so many post-MD residency/fellowship years, and/or may not require any post-residency fellowship years at all.

    Thoughts? (Don’t know your specialty – for the record, I’m a chem engineer who worked as a research scientist for several years then went to law school and have been a corporate patent attorney the last 18 years, so I’m not too educated on MD opportunities. My daughter is leaning Peds if she goes for the MD).

    Sorry if any of this is out-of-scope; if so, feel free of course to say so or non-answer.



    • I would tell anyone thinking about medicine don’t even think about going into it for the money. It would definitely NOT be worth it if that is the primary reason for pursuing that career.
      Docs definitely have a delay in earnings since even Peds would only be able to start earning a good salary at 29 years old if she took the traditional track. Peds is also consistently the lowest paid specialty as well, so the docs running up 300K student loans that specialize in peds are really starting out in the hole.
      If she could finish med school with zero loans (max would be one years salary worth of loans and that is a real burden) and she absolutely loves it, then it could be worth it to her, but if she could be just as happy doing something else, it might be a good idea for her to pursue another tract. Let me know if you have any other questions.

      Tom @ HIP

  • Dood, el Farbe
    8 months ago

    Tom, thanks for your comments. She’s not thinking much about money downstream (so I’m doing it for her); she just has it in her head that she wants to be a pediatrician.

    Because this is a relatively recently expressed desire (~ 15 mos) I was leery of her changing her mind about med school in the end and coming out of UG with a standard pre-med BS that would be difficult to use professionally. We’ve got some experience with that as her mom/my wife withdrew from Illinois when she finally learned being a GP wasn’t for her, then was left trying to figure out what one can do with a BS psych/premed/anatomy degree (not much as it turns out, other than occupations that just require any BA/BS as an entrée).

    We did look at some of the joint BS/MD programs – one of my employee’s sons is in one – but I had the same concern about level of commitment and being locked into a program she might come to regret 3 or 4 years down the road.

    Thanks again!

  • Great post and approach to an important topic. Personally, I always applied a bit of intensity to my college life (even post-bacc) . . . mainly because I kept in touch with the broader world that was continuing to move along while I was stuck in class.

    I guess that I treated my program of study a little like a co-op . . . which helped me sequence courses better and even treat SUMMERS more like regular old work and learn time, and not vacation time. But it wasn’t ever really about saving money or moving faster.

    That said, (and needless to say as a College Professor) I don’t think ‘accelerating’ learning which is all the rage right now is necessarily a good thing. Sure it might save you some dough, but it may also make you a weaker all around individual. We do know there is a pace to good learning . . . although we like to think the technology revolution has made us instant, learning cyborgs . . . we’re not. It’s still about Piaget and Maslow and Chickering . . . the human brain has limits and it grows/develops in its own way.

    So even from a PF perspective, I kinda want to compare it like this . . . do you want $1,000,000 now or $100,000 a year forever? When it comes to my brain, I’ll always take the latter.

    • I hear you loud and clear on the point of hurrying through school just for the sake of saving money.
      I’m not advocating that at all.
      I do think that most degrees can be accomplished by most people in four years, although there are special circumstances.
      The important part to me is developing a plan, having a goal in the student’s education and executing that goal.
      I’m instilling in my kids that the object of college is to get an education that propels them to their dreams and goals in the future, not to only have the “college experience” and fund that at any cost.
      Like most things in life, some forethought and planning will probably help minimize frustration and expenses.
      It is awesome to get a professor’s perspective since you are on the front lines. I’ll always welcome your perspective on education. Thank you for reading and sharing.

      Tom @ HIP

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