Some private colleges are beginning to offer a four-year degree guarantee: if an incoming student should require an extra year to graduate, the school will pay for it. But read the fine print.

The new student, along with a parent and the college president, could sign a special agreement that is emerging at some colleges and universities: As long as the student keeps up with academic work and meets regularly with advisers, the college guarantees that earning a degree there will take no more than four years.

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