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Is Graduating in Four Years a Realistic Goal?

Most college students likely intend to graduate within four years of their first semester. But as thousands of graduates will tell you, life gets in the way sometimes, and it might not always be possible to stay on the 4-year track. When should you stick to this goal, and when does it make sense to give it up?

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By Sarah Wright

college completion rates graduating in four years

Is It Realistic to Expect College Completion in Four Years?

The answer to the main question posed here is pretty simple: it depends on what your individual situation is. Some students manage to graduate in four years with absolutely no bumps in the road along the way. Others have issues that crop up and make the 4-year time frame completely unreasonable. It's impossible to predict whether these issues will come up and throw you off track.

Students who end up taking extra time do so for a variety of reasons, from personal tragedy to illness, academic change of heart to financial crisis. These are all completely valid reasons to take time off of school. Taking time off doesn't necessarily doom you to never graduating, so allowing yourself to get fixated on a specific time frame for graduation might not be the best decision. Your degree means the same thing whether it takes you four or ten years to earn it.

When to Stick to The 4-Year Plan

Even though there are things that can throw you off track, it makes sense to try to graduate within the traditional 4-year timeframe. If you are eager to go onward and upward from college, you might not want to let anything shake you from reaching your goal. This is perfectly understandable. You simply might not have any cause to take a break from school, and if that's what's right for you, you should stick with it.

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When It's OK to Deviate

In the same vein, you should pay attention to your instincts when it comes to taking a little extra time to graduate. Maybe there's a study-abroad program you'd like to take, but you won't get credit for it, and will have to make up for the time you take off. Perhaps a close family member has fallen seriously ill, and you can't bring yourself to focus on schoolwork while you're worried about your loved one. Or maybe you just aren't sure if your major is right for you, and you want to take some time off to work in the field and see if it's something you could do long-term. These are all perfectly valid reasons to take time off, and they could each be more important to an individual than the idea of graduating 'on time.'

'Traditional' Isn't Really the Norm Anymore

The 4-year graduation timeframe is a hallmark of a time when 'traditional' students were the norm at colleges and universities. Now, part-time, older and commuter students make up a significant portion of the higher education student population. It simply doesn't make sense for everyone to try to graduate in four years anymore. Though graduation should be your goal, it doesn't have to be attained on a specific timeframe. The important thing is that you complete college in the most academically effective and personally healthy manner you can.

Traditional 4-year students no longer make up the majority of the higher education student population in the U.S.

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