“Last-mile gaps” stand in the way of on-time graduation for too many students. After three or more years of coursework, finances may be the last barrier to a college degree.  

It helps no one—and students with unmet financial need least of all—that late graduation often costs more in the long term. Complete College America estimates that bachelor’s degree–seeking students lose, on average, $68,153 to tuition, fees, and living expenses, as well as forgone income, for each additional year they spend in college.

Despite the added costs of extra semesters, in 2018, only 55% of full-time students and 21% of part-time students who entered college in 2012 had graduated within six years. The graduation rate after eight years rose by only about six percentage points for full-time students and three percentage points for part-timers, indicating that many students who don’t graduate in six years drop out before finishing their degree.

Apart from financial reasons, what prevents students from graduating on time? Transferring, working, changing majors, juggling too many obligations, and failing to forge social connections at school can all contribute to delayed graduation. A few of these can restrict students’ ability to take a full course load—a factor crucial to on-time graduation. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that only 45% of students who worked more than twenty-five hours per week were able to maintain above a 3.0 GPA. This suggests students who have to work to pay for their tuition, or who choose to work to avoid student loan debt, may simply be too busy to maintain a full schedule.

Other students may take fewer than fifteen credits for academic reasons. For students whose K-12 schools lacked critical resources, a full course load may be too rigorous straight out of high school. On top of this, silence around on-time graduation means that many students fail to consider the long-term impact of light course loads without a plan to make up the credits.

To break that silence, and to improve on-time graduation rates, the first step may be to help students understand the scope of the problem. According to a UCLA study, 86% of freshmen think they’ll graduate in four years, even though the statistics suggest otherwise. To boost awareness of the costs of delayed graduation, schools may give students regular degree audits to track their progress, provide suggested course schedules or “pathways,” and focus advising efforts on on-time graduation. 

In 2017, the state of Indiana did the latter, with a public campaign called “15 to Finish” that encouraged students to take full course loads. The state of Minnesota took an even stronger tack years before, incentivizing students to take fifteen credit hours per semester with additional financial aid. Such incentive models were more successful than punitive policies that discouraged students from taking excess credit hours with tuition surcharges.

It’s also documented that many students pay for more credits than they need. To keep students on track to on-time graduation, schools with available resources may provide extra sessions of required classes and clarify policies about transfer credits.

It’s worth acknowledging that a root problem of many inhibitors to on-time graduation—working while in school, balancing too many obligations, and others—is financial need. In a 2014 study by the University of Washington of students who dropped out, 35.1% of respondents cited student-loan concerns as one reason for leaving, while 35.5% cited “other financial reasons.”

The growing financial strain on college students indicates an area where schools can help.  Graduating in four years sets students up for success by reducing the overall cost of college and allowing students to enter the workforce sooner. Whether it’s through pay-for-success programs like income share agreements (ISAs), expanded career services, or something else, colleges are searching more and more for ways to improve their graduation rates. Building awareness of delayed graduation’s cost, and support for financial challenges that may derail students, can help keep them and their schools on the right track.