The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

how to get through college
Tina Bandalan

California State University, Northridge is one of the most diverse schools in the nation. But roughly half of its students don’t graduate in six years, and many never receive a degree. To remedy this problem, California State University, which consists of 23 schools and is the largest university system in the country, has launched an initiative to double its four-year graduation rate in 10 years. Working with The Hechinger Report for this series, three students from a Northridge journalism class write about what has held them back, and what they think needs to change.

If over-achieving in school was a sport, I would have been a decathlete. From kindergarten through high school, I jumped at every opportunity to excel, taking as many honors courses as I could. As a result of all this studiousness, I graduated a semester early from high school in 1999. So, naturally, one would expect that I finished college at 21 and am now deep into my professional career. Right? Wrong.

I just graduated in December, 15 years after I started college.

Where I went to college, not graduating is almost as common as completing a degree. About 13 percent of students graduate from my school, California State University, Northridge, in four years. The California State University system, the largest system in the country, with 23 campuses, ranks around the middle, with a graduation rate of 50 percent in six years.

Related: Obama says failing to help everyone will drag down the economy. Here’s how research shows that’s true

Over the last 20 years, more than 31 million students nationwide started college but never earned a degree. And I almost became one of them.

“Why did it take me so long to graduate, and why did it almost not happen if I was such an overachiever?”

So, why did it take me so long to graduate?

Well, ironically, my ambition became a stumbling block to graduation. Four years into school, in what I thought would be my last year, I realized I could graduate more quickly by taking more than the standard load. Although, as a member of the Army’s National Guard, I received full tuition through a military program, trying to cover living expenses and study for so many classes was overwhelming. My grades suffered, I failed a required class and I was burnt out. So — always intending to return to complete that last course — I decided to take a break from school and get a job.

But life took over. The importance of finishing my degree diminished as I found steady work, first as an administrative assistant and then as a realtor in Atlanta.

Over the last 20 years, more than 31 million Americans have attended college but never earned a degree

It took about a decade for my ambition, which initially caused me to take too many classes, to kick back in and help me move forward to complete my education. In 2014, I reenlisted with the Army National Guard and learned that I was again eligible for tuition assistance through the military, this time to help pay for graduate school. I had not yet finished college, but I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. And so I returned, more than a decade after dropping out.

Related: Budget cuts are taking the heaviest toll on colleges that serve the neediest students

While I’m very proud to be the first in my family to receive a college degree, taking so long to graduate caused problems. After such a long hiatus, it was difficult to adjust my daily routine and work schedule and to reprogram my mindset to an academic environment. If I had graduated on schedule in 2005 and headed right to graduate school, I might have received more lucrative job opportunities. By this time in my life, I might have been established in a well-paying career, with my college debts behind me.

So, in hindsight here’s what I think students should do to graduate on time with the least amount of debt:

  1. Choose wisely. With the plethora of course, program and degree choices available, students need to be diligent in selecting a curriculum and an institution that best suits their desires, abilities, and time and financial constraints. Make use of advising systems.
  2. Avoid multiple school transfers and only take required courses. Use all available advising resources to map out a plan of the EXACT courses needed to fulfill the degree requirements, and plan school transfers carefully to ensure as many credits transfer over as possible.
  3. Take a fuller (but not too full) course load. Ree’shemah Thornton, interim assistant vice president at San Francisco State University, encourages students to take a minimum of 15 units per semester as one way of helping to increase the on-time graduation rate. But be careful not to fall into the trap I did, of over-enrolling in classes.

Tina Bandalan entered California State University, Northridge, in the fall of 1999 and graduated in December, 2016. She is planning to join a realty brokerage firm, take the LSAT and apply for a joint J.D./M.B.A. program. She hopes to receive support through the military’s Tuition Assistance Program and the Yellow Ribbon Program, which enables universities to provide tuition discounts to veterans or active service members.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *