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Guaranteed Tuition and 4 Year Graduation: Part 2

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picture of scales for value of college graduation guaranteeGuaranteed tuition programs are one way to save money although they probably have a greater effect at public colleges than private ones. The other guarantee program popping up with increasing frequency is a four-year college graduation guarantee. This means that if it takes you more than four years to graduate, the college will pay for the remaining classes needed to graduate. Given that the average four-year graduation rate is less than 50%, this is an appealing offer.

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But how good of an offer is it?

There are two common criticisms of the graduation guarantee. The first is that it’s only being offered by schools that already have a high graduation rate. A closer look at the graduation rates of these schools shows that this criticism has little foundation in reality. The average graduation rate of the 88 colleges I’ve identified with guaranteed four-year graduation is 37%. This is little different from the 39% four-year graduation rate reported by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The second knock against such programs is as one parent tells the New York Times, “There seemed to be a lot of reasons for it not to be their fault and to pay for that fifth year.”

These programs do include a list of requirements that should a student fail to meet them, would release the college from its obligation to pay for the remaining classes. But here’s the interesting part, these requirements tend to be things that students should be doing anyway. They include meeting with an advisor, registering early, using degree completion check tools, taking full course loads, and so on.

And here is where I see the value of college graduation guarantees. In the past, especially at public universities, a student could do all the “right” things and still be short a class through no fault of her own. Depending on the bureaucracy, the response was often “tough luck, see you next semester.”

But now if advisors see students are going to have problems meeting the requirements, they have an incentive to provide students with an alternative means to satisfy the requirements. The University of the Pacific states that it will substitute “a different course or an independent study assignment, as determined by the department and the college offering the student’s major.”

The University of Wisconsin states that it may do one of the following:

  • identify an alternative means to satisfy the applicable course requirement within the semester in question;
  • identify an alternative means to satisfy the applicable course requirement prior to the expiration of the four calendar years covered by the Agreement;
  • provide the opportunity to take the required course or an alternative means to satisfy the applicable course requirement at no tuition cost to the student after the expiration of the four calendar years covered by the Agreement.

These graduation guarantees finally put some responsibility on the university to meet its obligations in terms of course availability. Even the fact that certain majors are excluded from the programs is useful information. The student will know that even though it seems like a four-year degree, the chances are it won’t be completed in four years.

So will these programs result in a dramatic increase in graduation rates for the participating colleges?

Not likely.

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According to the University of Pacific which has had a program since 1991, they end up paying extra tuition for two students a year. The university’s four-year graduation rate is only 43%.

Winona State University actually dropped its four-year guarantee. The Director of Admissions told The Chronicle of Higher Education that “We never had a student make a claim, so we felt we didn’t need the language to instruct us to be good.”

I’m not sure what he meant by “be good” given that Winona State University’s four-year graduation rate was a consistent 25-26% from 2004 to 2010.

Winona State University Graduation Rates

Furthermore, like the tuition guarantee programs, there is a tendency for people to place a higher monetary value than it is actually worth. People see “4 year guarantee” and think “fifth year free!” Too many of those considering a private school think of the guarantee worth $50,000 or more.

The reality is that the college will pay for the tuition of the remaining classes you need to graduate which is probably only one or two. You’re still out for the books and living expenses.

It remains to be seen how effective these programs actually are especially at public universities. Will the cost of tuition for an extra class or two be worth those associated with an effective advising system and ensuring an adequate number of seats for required classes?

Ultimately, it would seem that these programs aren’t a major risk for the offering universities. The horror stories making the news about students not able to graduate because of the lack of classes probably don’t represent the principle reason why students don’t graduate on time. I suspect that those students are easily outnumbered by those who fail a class, have to cut back on classes in order to work, or change majors at a late date.

Four-year graduation guarantees represent even less financial value, the tuition of a class or two, than the tuition guarantee programs. However, for the few students who the colleges accommodate in these programs, it could be a huge difference. Instead of having to pay for the classes and living expenses, they can start being paid by working full-time jobs after graduation.

Below are 88 colleges that offer four-year graduation guarantees that I’ve found as of December 2014. There’s an increase of 11 institutions over last year’s count. The enrollment and graduation numbers are from the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet. 33 of the schools qualified as 50-50 schools.

Colleges with Four-Year Graduation Guarantees

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