Different paths lead to a degree

Many students get part-time jobs, take longer than 4 years to finish

Entering Michigan State University as a freshman, Joseph Montes assumed he would complete his degree in four years. Two majors, multiple part-time jobs, and three internships later, the 22-year-old, fifth-year senior from Lake Orion, Mich., isn’t necessarily disappointed that it didn’t turn out that way.

The journalism major picked up a second major in English so he could take special writing classes. He also has worked for the campus newspaper and took a semester off to intern with a daily newspaper. He works 30 hours a week and will graduate without debt.

“You need to think about your school and the pathway you’re going to take,” Montes says. “There are so many different ways to get an education these days.”

Hundreds of thousands of high school seniors are surfing the Web and poring over catalogs to figure out where they’re going to college. But many will base the decision on some traditional assumptions that aren’t necessarily true.

Most 18- and 19-year-olds starting college will take more than four years to graduate and will work at least part-time while in college, and many will earn credit from more than one school. And they shouldn’t count on multiplying their first year’s expenses by four to approximate a final price tag.

Among traditional-age college students — those who entered postsecondary education at 18 or 19 — only 45% finished in four years, according to Department of Education data, says Jacqueline King, director of the Center for Policy Analysis for the American Council on Education.

King says that’s related to a number of factors: About 80% of undergraduates work, and taking fewer than 12 to 15 credit hours a semester is common.

One reason many of the college-going norms have shifted is that the college-going demographics have expanded, King says.

“Just because you’re 18 doesn’t mean you don’t have a full-time job or a child or a spouse,” she says.

And just because you have a full-time job, a child or a spouse doesn’t mean you can’t go to college. At the same time, students often want more from their college experience: more majors, more internships, more activities, special programs or overseas study.

But as the college-going population and higher education opportunities expand, so do the factors that should go into a college decision.

Which credits will transfer?

Increasingly, college is shifting from a four-course meal to a collection of credits amassed a la carte. “Attending more than one institution is becoming the norm,” King says.

The expansion of Advanced Placement and high school joint enrollment means more students start college with credit. Also, more students earn credit from more than one college, whether they formally transfer or pick up courses at home over the summer.

Finding out transfer policies upfront can save headaches later.

“I would actually get a catalog from a local college and bring it with you” on campus visits, says Arlene Cash, vice president for enrollment at Spelman College in Atlanta. “Something may come up as an emergency, where you may have to spend a semester at home. And this happens a lot,” Cash says.

Students should ask which courses will transfer to their chosen university.

“If you’re thinking of attending one or two other universities, call them and ask them,” says Holly Munk, who transferred from Milwaukee’s Marquette to Chicago’s Saint Xavier University. “I had a couple classes that didn’t count at all, and I wish I’d had a little better communication with the schools I was considering transferring to.”

How likely am I to graduation time?

The average time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree for traditional-age students has been inching up for decades, according to Department of Education data. The causes may include working schedules, changing majors, mobility and course availability.

A prospective student can ask what percentage of the university’s students graduate in four years, but they also should ask why it is taking them longer, says Thyra Briggs, dean of enrollment at Sarah Lawrence College, a private liberal arts school in Bronxville, N.Y.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that the students aren’t getting into classes,” she says.

Munk suggests asking questions about program requirements, as well as summer school options.

But not everyone can plan around a specific program.

“It’s kind of a Catch-22, because at the time that you’re finishing high school, you have no idea what you want to do with your life,” Montes says. “Yet you’re making the most important decisions about where it’s going.”

That makes academic guidance crucial.

“I think it’s really important for parents to ask about the institution’s approach to advising,” says Tom Taylor, vice president of enrollment, marketing, and communications at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Though many parents would like to see their son or daughter graduate in four years for financial reasons, students and college admissions experts say prospective students need to weigh the importance of a four-year finish against other priorities. Second majors, internships, activities and outside study may all enrich the experience but may also add to the time spent getting a degree.

“You need to evaluate what’s important to you,” Montes says.

How will my tuition and aid change?

Annual tuition increases have become routine at many colleges, so unless a college commits to locking in a four-year tuition rate for an incoming class, it’s reasonable to assume the cost will go up.

The easiest way to plan is to ask for the percentage in tuition change over the past few years.

“You’re probably looking at a broad range of 5 to 10%,” says Barry Simmons, director of scholarships and financial aid for Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

Financial aid and scholarships are more complicated. Universities and the government award need-based financial aid on a year-to-year basis, so parent retirements, siblings entering or leaving college and job changes all will affect aid.

Another issue is “frontloading.” Some colleges are more generous with need-based grants the first year and then cut back or shift to more loans in later years.

Simmons says college personnel should be upfront when asked whether the institution employs frontloading. A college’s financial aid officers should be able to explain the policies.

Some colleges also offer merit aid. Students are more likely to find renewable scholarships from the institution rather than from outside providers, Simmons says.

How much debt am I going to accumulate?

Prospective students and their parents can ask college financial aid officers what is the average indebtedness of a given school’s graduates, but they also should be aware that they may not get an answer, and if they do, the answers might not be directly comparable.

“They need to (ask) if private loans are included or excluded,” Simmons says. “And if private loans are excluded, do they have figures on private loans.”

Simmons suggests all families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as possible starting Jan. 1, regardless of income. Even if you don’t qualify for grants, FAFSA will help you qualify for federal loans, which are generally cheaper and based on more liberal terms.

“Even Donald Trump could get a loan to go to college, but a lot of people don’t realize that,” he says.

How should I balance work and loans?

Many admissions and financial aid experts agree that taking out loans is more financially efficient than spending extra time in college because of a job.

“A lot of students put in more working hours than they perhaps should be because they’re against borrowing money,” says Dan Rosenfield, dean of enrollment management at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

“If, because they work too many hours, they graduate a year later or two later, they have lost one or two years of employment,” he says.

The student who works more than 20 hours a week “is several times more likely not to complete his or her degree.”

King says middle- and upper-income students are as likely to work as low-income students. “It used to be that your student days were times of scraping by,” she says.

Montes is one student who worked more than the recommended number of hours and still scraped by.

“I’m the kind of person that hates being in debt. I’ve been at zero and lived really frugally over the last five years to be out of debt,” says Montes, who spends 30 hours a week at his four part-time jobs.

He doesn’t recommend it to everyone, though.

“My GPA is not that great,” he says. “If you’re going to be a biology major, and you pretty much sell yourself to grad schools based on what your GPA is … work gets in the way.”