How Long Can You Stay in College?

Two-year and four-year institutions are called as such because the degrees they grant can be earned in two and four years, respectively. However, nowadays, it’s not uncommon for students, including especially non-traditional ones, to take longer to earn their degrees, with some undergraduate students taking up to six years to graduate.

You might be wondering: can I take my time and stay as long as I want in college?

At some colleges and universities, students can stay for as many semesters as necessary until they complete their programs and earn their degrees. However, at some institutions, students are given a limited number of semesters to graduate, which can be as few as eight semesters at competitive schools.

Here’s a fun fact: Robert F.P. Cronin, according to the Guinness World Records, took 52 years and 111 days to complete his biology degree at Princeton University, from February 1948 to May 2000.

Now more than ever, a degree doesn’t come cheap. Earning it takes many semesters, too. And it’s because of this why spending more than four to six years in college can waste a lot of money and time.

Unfortunately for some, such as those with jobs to keep and families to take care of, taking more time to graduate is the only doable option.

Read on if you feel that it might take you a while to complete the program you are planning to enroll in — we will answer some of the most pressing questions about semester limits many colleges and universities impose.

Why Do Some Colleges Have Semester Limits?

At some colleges and universities, the number of semesters undergraduate students can take before they graduate is limited in order to make way for incoming classes and to keep graduation rates high. Similarly, students can receive the Federal Pell Grant for no more than 12 semesters in their lifetime.

Cost, acceptance rate, retention rate, programs available, location, student life, college rankings — these are some of the things considered by many graduating high schoolers when choosing colleges.

Many fail to check whether or not a school requires its students to graduate within a certain time frame.

While the vast majority of institutions in the US do not limit the number of semesters their undergraduates can take before they obtain their degrees, some of them actually do. Usually, they talk about it on their respective websites, particularly where they provide FAQs to incoming freshmen students.

But just because some colleges and universities do not limit the number of semesters undergraduate students can take before they get their hands on their respective degrees doesn’t necessarily mean that they tolerate some of their attendees that seem to overstay their welcome — they want them to graduate in a timely manner, too.

It all has something to do with keeping the graduation rate up, which can make them look good.

College ranking sites use many data points when evaluating institutions, and one of those is the graduation rate. As a matter of fact, according to US News, which is arguably the most popular college ranker around, up to 40% of a school’s rank comes from outcomes, and the graduation rate is one of those.

Graduation rates are usually measured over a four- or six-year period — the more students graduate four or six years after initial enrollment, the higher the graduation rate.

Other than snatching the top spots in annual college rankings, many colleges and universities — those with actual semester limits as well as those without semester limits but still want their attendees to graduate in the shortest amount of time possible — also want to make sure that there are enough spots available for incoming students.

How Do Colleges Ensure Timely Graduation?

In order to keep undergraduates from taking a long time to graduate, many colleges and universities limit the number of majors and minors students can pursue. Some schools have accelerated programs that can be completed in around two years. Others offer three-year degrees for students with earned credits.

Undergraduate students are not really required to declare a minor. However, declaring a major is a must.

Having a major is important in order for you to earn a bachelor’s degree. Most of the time, undergraduates can choose up to three areas of study: one major and two minors or two majors and one minor.

At some colleges and universities, the number of majors students can pursue is limited — someone who wishes to have more feathers in his or her cap is usually encouraged to go to graduate school. At CSU Fresno, for instance, undergraduates may attempt to earn two majors and two minors at most only if everything can be completed within 144 units.

Other schools ensure timely graduation by shortening the time it would take to complete a bachelor’s degree, such as by making accelerated degrees available.

Also sometimes referred to as fast-track degrees, accelerated degrees are bachelor’s degrees that, instead of four or six years, can be completed in two years — sometimes a little longer but sometimes a little quicker, depending on how many credits a student has previously earned or how fast a learner he or she is.

And then there are also institutions, such as Florida State University and the University of North Carolina- Greensboro, that offer three-year degree programs.

Which Colleges Have Semester Limits for Undergraduates?

Some competitive colleges and universities give their undergraduate students only a few semesters to graduate. For instance, both Columbia University and UC Berkeley have an eight-semester limit. Other institutions limit their undergraduate students up to 12 semesters, which is equivalent to six years.

The following are some four-year institutions in the US with published semester limits for first-time, first-year students earning an undergraduate degree:

Binghamton University – SUNYVestal, New York12
Columbia CollegeNew York City, New York8
Johns Hopkins UniversityBaltimore, Maryland10
Oxnard CollegeOxnard, California12
Michigan State UniversityEast Lansing, Michigan12
New York UniversityNew York City, New York12
Pacific Lutheran UniversityParkland, Washington12
San Diego State UniversitySan Diego, California12
The Master’s UniversitySanta Clarita, California18
University of California – BerkeleyBerkeley, California8
University of Illinois – Urbana-ChampaignChampaign, Illinois9
University of South CarolinaColumbia, South Carolina8
University of South FloridaTampa, Florida12
University of Texas at AustinAustin, Texas10
Colleges with semester limits

Semester limits, if imposed, may vary for freshmen students and transferees and from school to school.

At UC Berkeley, for instance, it’s true that first-time, first-year students are given up to eight semesters to complete their respective degrees. However, transferees are only given a maximum of four semesters. Meanwhile, the semester limit for transferees is 12 at Pacific Lutheran University.

On the other hand, at Columbia College, students who enter the school as freshmen or transferees are given up to eight semesters to graduate.

Summers, by the way, do not count toward allowed semesters in most instances.

Many non-traditional students choose to study online in order to enjoy flexibility in schedule that most traditional colleges and universities do not offer, thus allowing them to balance their students and personal or professional lives.

While it’s a fact that students earning a certificate, diploma or degree via the internet may log in only at the most opportune times, especially if the classes are asynchronous where attendees can engage with the course content at different times, in some instances, they have to graduate on time, too.

At Gonzaga University, for instance, those who wish to earn a certificate online have a three-semester limit to beat.

old student

Just Before You Lay Out Your College Timetable

Different colleges and universities have different views on how long their students should be able to complete their academic programs — some allow their undergraduates to take their time as much as they like, while others require them to be out of the campus after a certain number of semesters.

It’s a good idea to earn your degree within four to six years, which is typically how long it takes to obtain a bachelor’s these days, in order to keep college costs to a minimum and have your dream career ASAP.

Related Questions

Which careers need the most amount of college education?

Individuals who like to become scientists, doctors, lawyers and teachers one day have to spend many years in college for they require specialized training that enables them to be able to work in their chosen fields. Many of them also have to take exams to obtain certifications and licenses.

Is there a minimum or maximum age for college admission?

While it’s true that 17 years old is considered the minimum age, the law does not prohibit younger people, including elementary-age kids, from enrolling in colleges. Similarly, there is no maximum age limit to apply to college not only in the US but also in many other countries on the planet.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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