Updated: Jan 19, 2020
In this graphic, the blue lines represent the number of undergraduate degree programs at each UNC school that require 120 credit hours. The yellow lines are programs that require 121 to 124 hours. The orange lines are majors that require 125 to 128 hours.
Courtesy of the UNC System
You may know that 6 years is not the "on- time" college graduation rate as calculated by colleges in the US. If you search for the percentage of students who graduate "on- time" you will see surprisingly low numbers and probably not even realized that even those numbers are based on a 6 year time frame. Why does it matter? Because those extra semesters will cost you from $10,000-$50,000 more than the $60,000-$100,000 you will likely invest in a college education. This is serious business for middle class families like mine who don't have an extra $50,000 laying around.
So what is causing the delay in graduation? There are multiple factors, some you can control with wise planning and some that are out of your control. One of those that is out of your hands is the number of credit hours required to graduate. In the past, 120 hours was the number students needed for most degrees. That breaks down to 15 hours each semester for 8 semesters. Many students assume that since 12 hours is considered a "full time student" that their goal is to take 12 each semester. But, that will leave them 24 hours short of the 120 hour goal. That is an additional 2 semesters. And now, many colleges are slowly allowing their required hours for graduation to creep up above 120, making it very difficult to graduate in 4 years.
In my home state of North Carolina there are several colleges who don't offer any 120 hour degree programs at all. Four campuses — Appalachian State, UNCG, UNC-Wilmington and UNC School of the Arts — have no programs at 120 hours.
Fortunately, the UNC Board of Governors has decided to cap undergraduate programs at 120 hours. The new policy takes effect in fall 2019. It won't affect currently enrolled students, who will graduate under current standards. Maybe other states will soon follow and cut requirements back as well.
So what can we do to help our students graduate on time (the old fashioned way-4 years)? Make sure your student understands that they will need to take 15 credit hours per semester to finish their degree on time. Also, encourage them to visit their advisor often to make sure they are taking the correct classes.
Graduation can also be delayed when students are unable to get the classes they need when they need them. If your student is currently in high school, consider taking dual enrollment courses at a community college and earn 15-30 hours of general education credit before entering a 4- year university. This will allow them to cut back on the number of hours they take per semester, or even graduate early (imagine!)
In addition, students who enter college with a good idea of what degree they want to pursue are less likely to change their major and need additional classes. Choosing the right school is important as well. When students change schools they can lose credits and need more classes.
I encourage you to help your student make a plan for college that will set them up for success, things like...
1. finding a major they enjoy
2. understanding the employment prospects in that field
3. taking the correct classes
4. graduating with as little debt as possible
And remember, 15 is the magic number!