Four years can slide into five, and five into six, if college students don't pay attention. That escalates the cost of an already pricey college education.
So private Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea is joining a handful of other colleges and universities across the country to offer a ''guarantee.'' If students do what they're supposed to do, the college will ensure that they get out in four years or it will pick up the tab for a fifth year of schooling.
It appears to be the first program of its kind in Ohio.
''We know parents are concerned about the high cost of college,'' said associate academic dean Janet Stocks. ''We wanted them to know that we're dedicated to getting students through in four years.''
Nationwide, graduation guarantees are available at more than 30 institutions, ranging from small liberal arts colleges to major research institutions. Most are in the Midwest and West, are optional and free, and generally open only to first-time, full-time freshmen.
Students who follow the program rules and find they can't graduate in four years have some assurance that the institution will make it right. Officials may allow them to substitute other courses for the ones they need, waive them or take the courses later for free on the institution's tab.
The guarantee has helped more students get to the educational finish line more quickly, said Chad Cross, coordinator of the program at Eastern Illinois University, a tax-supported institution with 11,600 students.
The university launched the program in 2002 as a response to a decline in graduation rates.
Today 48 percent of students in the program finish in four years, compared to the low 30s for other students, he said. Some Eastern Illinois majors are not eligible for the guarantee because they are in programs that automatically take more than four years.
''The vast majority of students who don't finish in four years didn't do what they were supposed to do,'' Cross said. ''The student has responsibilities.''
Less than 10 of Eastern Illinois University students reach the end of their four years with the need for an additional course or two, he said.
At small and private Juniata College in Huntington, Pa., the program ''resonates with parents,'' spokesman John Wall said.
While the first class with graduation guarantees won't finish their degrees at the 1,500-student college until spring 2012, Juniata already gets most of its students out the door in four years thanks to a strong advising system and adjustable degree programs, he said.
At Baldwin-Wallace, 68 percent of students finish their degrees in four years. That includes students who drop out or transfer to other institutions. But among those who spend all four years at the college, the number is even higher more than 90 percent. Starting in fall 2012, the college hopes to inch that up still further.
Freshmen can choose to sign agreements to follow a schedule of classes for their major.
The agreement lets Baldwin-Wallace officials bypass privacy laws, contacting participants' parents if they're getting off track by dropping a course, changing their major or taking less than the required number of majors. Mom and Dad get reports of their midterm grades.
As for students, they must use B-W Graduation Plan software to plan their academic schedule and must meet regularly with an academic adviser.
Stocks, the associate provost, said she expects it to be popular with the 750 or so freshmen who enroll every fall.
After the school has worked with the program for a year or two, it may be extended to transfer students, she said.
She didn't know how many students may meet program requirements and still need extra courses at the end of their eighth semester in other words, end up going to school on Baldwin-Wallace's tab.
She did not appear to be worried.
''We have a lot of faith in our ability to do this,'' she said. ''We don't think it's going to be very costly.''
Beacon Journal staff writer can be reached at 330-996-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.