The cost of a college education can be staggeringly steep—and for many students, that investment will be wasted. Only 41% of students who enroll in bachelor’s programs earn degrees in four years, and only 60% do so in five years. The rest will be saddled with debt for decades but without the enhanced earnings potential that a degree might have provided.

It is possible to predict which college students are unlikely to earn degrees and identify strategies that could improve their odds of graduating.

In High School

Parents should encourage students to do these things in high school to improve their odds of graduating from college…

Take challenging classes. High school students face a strategic choice—should they take easy classes to boost their grade point averages (GPAs) or more difficult classes that will push them academically? Higher GPAs are correlated with better college-graduation rates, but the data strongly suggests that kids who take tough high school classes are especially likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. Example: Students who take at least one advanced placement (AP) class or class that provides college credit are nearly twice as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees as those who don’t take advanced classes. This is in part because the smartest high school students are most likely to take AP and college courses—but it also is because students who are academically challenged in high school tend to be better prepared for the educational rigors of college.

Push particularly hard in math—even if the student doesn’t intend to major in math. Every additional math course a student takes in high school significantly improves that student’s odds of earning a bachelor’s degree in any major. If the most advanced math class a student takes in high school is ­algebra 1, the odds of earning a bachelor’s are just 7%…taking high school geometry ups that to 21%…algebra 2 to 39%…trigonometry to 63%…precalculus to 73%…and calculus to 83%. This data is in part simply showing that good students tend to get further in math than weak students—but, again, the differences in college outcomes are so dramatic that this seems unlikely to be the only explanation. Two possibilities: There is something about high school math that identifies the students destined to succeed in college…and/or that helps students succeed in college. One theory: Kids who study advanced math develop their ability to think rationally, which is valuable in any academic field.

Take on the right extracurricular activities. Should high school students who wish to graduate from college focus on academics or join teams, clubs and groups? The answer is…it depends. There’s strong evidence that joining high school math clubs and science clubs increases the odds of later earning a bachelor’s degree. Joining student government, the student newspaper or yearbook has a less dramatic but still positive effect—but playing on sports teams has little effect on whether someone later earns a bachelor’s degree. And joining many other groups during high school, including scouting, 4-H and “hobby clubs,” is correlated with reduced odds of earning those degrees.

But: Being the captain or MVP of a high school sports team or having a leadership position in a club or group is associated with increased odds of earning a bachelor’s degree, suggesting that students should focus their extracurricular time and energy on one group to improve their odds of becoming a leader in that group rather than join lots of different groups.

Joining only one or two high school groups won’t hurt students’ chances of college acceptance. Contrary to the widely held belief, colleges almost always take a student who shows a deep interest in one or two areas over a student who dabbles in many.

Heading to College

Three smart strategies as students transition from high school to college…

Don’t take a gap year. Taking a year off between high school and college might seem like a good way for a student to gain maturity and life experience, but research has found that it reduces the odds of earning a bachelor’s degree from 72% to 56%. Those odds fall further still if, like many gap-year takers, the student fails to return to school after a single year. Once students get out of the habit of being students, they often find it hard to resume their studies.

Don’t use community college as a stepping stone to a four-year school. It seems like a savvy way to trim college costs—attend an affordable community college for two years, then transfer to a pricier four-year college for just two years to earn a bachelor’s degree. But only around 20% of students who head to community college with this plan in mind actually earn their bachelor’s degrees within six years. Students who take a detour through a community college on their way to a four-year degree are much less likely to reach their destination, regardless of academic performance in high school. But: If the student’s goal is to get an associate’s degree or a certificate and not to transfer, a community college is a very good option, especially for students who have lower GPAs in high school.

Enroll in a college that has a high graduation rate. Some colleges have graduation rates well above 90%…­others below 20%. Schools’ graduation rates can be found in college guidebooks or on the US Department of Education’s College Navigator (
navigator) or College Scorecard ­( websites.

In College

Four ways college students can significantly improve their odds of graduating…

Don’t work more than 12 hours per week in paid employment. If your plan for paying for college involves the student working more than this, you need a new plan. Every hour worked beyond 12 hours a week significantly reduces the odds of graduation, likely because it leaves the student with insufficient time for studies. On the other hand, working in a paid job 12 or fewer hours per week in college improves the odds of graduation, perhaps by teaching the student the value of work or forcing the student to become better at time management.

Live on campus. Students who live on campus have a 77% chance of earning a bachelor’s within six years…those who live off campus, around 48%. And 51% of students who live on campus graduate with a bachelor’s degree within four years, compared with 24% of students who live off campus and 20% of students who live with their parents.

Campus life immerses students in the college environment, improving access to study groups and providing an atmosphere where almost everyone is focused on the goal of graduation.

Avoid transferring between colleges. Changing colleges midway lowers the odds of earning a bachelor’s degree within six years from 76% to 56%. Transferring can create unexpected complications—not every credit earned and prerequisite reached at the first college will be accepted by the new one, for example.

Earn 15 credits per semester. Colleges and student-loan programs define “full-time student” as someone taking at least 12 credits per semester…but it typically takes 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree. If you do the math, that means students need 15 credits per semester to graduate in four years.

What Parents Can Do

Saving for college is the single best thing parents can do to increase the odds that their kids will earn their bachelor’s degrees—financial problems are among the leading reasons students drop out. Four more ways parents can help…

Join the PTA. Belonging to and actively participating in the PTA when a child is in elementary, middle and high school increases the odds that the child will go on to earn a bachelor’s degree by 17 percentage points, according to one data set. Students put greater value in their education when their parents are involved in the process.

Be open to a young child repeating kindergarten…but resist having him/her repeat later grades. Students who repeat grades in elementary or middle school are significantly less likely than other students to go on to earn a bachelor’s. But students who repeat kindergarten enjoy significantly improved odds of earning a bachelor’s, perhaps because they end up being slightly more advanced than their classmates for the remainder of their academic careers. And unlike being held back in later years, repeating kindergarten tends not to point to long-term academic shortcomings.

Encourage pursuit of a master’s degree—even if a bachelor’s is the goal. Students who plan to earn master’s degrees earn their bachelor’s degrees 74% of the time…while those who expect to earn only a bachelor’s degree earn those degrees 58% of the time.

Don’t divorce until graduation if possible. Researchers have consistently found that students are significantly less likely to earn their bachelor’s degree if their parents divorce or separate before they do so.

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