Colleges Increasingly Offer Four-Year Guarantees

Paying college tuition is one of the biggest concerns for students heading towards high school graduation and their parents and now some schools are hoping to increase their enrollment numbers by offering some peace of mind. The New York Times reports that fifteen schools across the U.S. are promising their students that they will be able to graduate in four years, and if they can't, the tuition payments for the time it takes to complete the degree are on the house.

The offers, which are generally known as ‘Four-Year Guarantees,' do not come without fine print. The student is required to maintain certain academic standards, can't fail courses, can't change majors mid-stream or "go backpacking through Europe." The school will only pay for its own mistakes such as a failure to offer required courses and prerequisites or bad advising by a guidance counselor. The idea is that if everyone follows the rules, students graduate on time and parents can breathe easy that their tuition payments aren't going down a hole.

Although most schools have only been offering their version of the guarantee since 2008 at the earliest, one school, the University of the Pacific, a small private school in California, has been running a tuition-payment program since 1991. According to Robert J. Alexander, an associate provost for enrollment, over the lifetime of the program, the school has had to pay tuition for an average of two students per year. He calls the guarantee an incentive to do everything they can to help students get their degrees in four years.

Kristin Hammarstrom, a senior engineering major at Pacific, said her adviser recently noticed that she was a unit short of credits to graduate on time this May, and proposed several ways to catch up. "They've never really had to pay out because it's set up so they don't have to," she said.

Almost all of the fifteen schools are private colleges that tend to have higher tuition and, that, nationwide, already graduate 80% of their students in four years. However, several public schools, where the four-year graduation rate is closer to 50%, offer the guarantee too. Western Michigan University is one such, along with California State University at Fullerton and the California State Polytechnic University.

Since most guarantee programs have been introduced relatively recently, it's hard to judge their effectiveness. However, many schools see getting their students to diplomas in four years a worthy goal, though they may try to reach it via a different path. Maxwell Nesterak, wring for the Daily Gazette, the Swarthmore College newspaper, contrasts the guarantee to his school's approach to the issue.

According to Swarthmore's financial aid policies, "Assistance is available only during a normal-length undergraduate program (eight semesters) and only if a student enrolls full-time each semester, earns four credits each semester, and makes satisfactory academic progress."

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