Samantha Peterson is a "junior-ish" at the University of Baltimore, where she's trying to finish a degree in criminal justice while working full time.
Samantha Peterson is a "junior-ish" at the University of Baltimore, where she's trying to finish a degree in criminal justice while working full time. - 
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Samantha Peterson is what you might call a "typical student" at the University of Baltimore.

"I am a junior-ish," she says, in between bites of a sandwich at the student center. "That means that I've been in school for a very long time."

Peterson has been in school—studying criminal justice—five or six years now, she says. Because she works, full-time, at a school cafeteria.

The University of Baltimore is like a lot of urban, public campuses. Most students here work, and more than half need to take remedial courses. That's partly why just 12 to 15 percent of students graduate in four years.

"The longer it takes for students to complete college, the more life gets in the way, and the less likely they are to graduate," says Dominique Raymond with the advocacy group Complete College America.

So starting in the fall, the University of Baltimore will offer new freshmen a deal. If they finish in four years, the last semester's tuition is on the house. At today's prices that's worth about $3,300 for in-state students.

President Bob Bogomolny expects the university to save money by getting students through faster. It could also attract more full-time students.

"If we can motivate a few students to have the advantage of finishing in four, to have less loans, to get into the workforce sooner, it's worth it to us," he says.

Nationally, just over half of college students finish in six years. Other schools are trying incentives like scholarships and loan forgiveness to encourage more students to attend full-time. The University of North Texas just approved a plan that gives students a fixed tuition rate and $4,000 discount if they finish in four years.

At the University of Baltimore, junior Blair Lee wishes the free semester deal had been around when he started.

"I was actually kind of excited when I heard that—a little jealous," he says. "I think it will give more people an incentive to finish faster and go on to possibly pursue graduate studies."

Lee is proof that money can be a powerful motivator. He's one of the rare students who expects to finish in four years—while working full time. He wants to avoid paying out-of-state tuition any longer than he has to.

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Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports