How to Graduate Early from College

Some Students Can Save Well Over $70,000

Graduation day!
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Many of the top private colleges and private universities in the country now have a total sticker price well over $70,000 a year. Some public universities have total costs of over $60,000 a year for out-of-state students. However, even if you don't qualify for financial aid, there's an obvious way to reduce your college costs: Graduate from college early. Finishing college in three and a half or even three years can save you tens of thousands of dollars.

Key Takeaways: Graduating Early

  • Graduating early not only saves you college expenses, but you can start earning money in a job sooner.
  • Credits are the key to graduating early. Plan classes carefully, take a full load, and try to bring in as many AP, IB, and dual enrollment credits as you can.
  • There are downsides: you'll have less time to foster relationships with friends and faculty members, and you may miss out on a senior thesis or research opportunities.

How to Fast Track Your College Career

So how can you graduate early? The math is pretty simple. A typical college load is four classes a semester, so in a year you're likely to take eight classes. To graduate a year early, you need to acquire eight classes worth of credit. You can do this a few ways:

  • Take as many AP courses as you can. If you score 4s or 5s on the AP exam, most colleges will give you course credit. In some cases, a score of 3 will earn credit.
  • If you have the option of an International Baccalaureate program, you can often earn college credit if you score well on your IB exams.
  • If your high school has dual enrollment options with a local college, the credits you earn will often transfer to your undergraduate institution. 
  • Take all available placement exams when you arrive at college. Many colleges offer placement exams in subjects like language, math, and writing. If you can place out of a few requirements, you'll be in a better position to graduate early.
  • Take community college courses for general education classes like writing, history, or introduction to psychology. Course credits will often transfer. Summer, even the summer before college, is a good time to rack up credits. Be sure to check with your college's Registrar first to make sure the course credits will transfer.
  • If you plan to study abroad, pick your program carefully. You'll need to transfer credits back to your college, so you want a program where all of your course work is going to count towards graduation.
  • Take the maximum number of credits allowed when you're in college. If you have a strong work ethic, you can pack more into a semester than the average student. By doing so, you'll fulfill all of your academic requirements sooner.

With some professional programs such as engineering and education, graduating early is rarely an option (in fact, often students end up taking more than four years).

The Downside of Graduating Early

Realize there are some disadvantages to graduating early, and you'll have to weigh these factors against the financial perks:

  • You'll have less time to build relationships with your professors. As a result, you'll have less opportunity to conduct meaningful research projects with the faculty, and your professors won't know you as well when you need letters of recommendation.
  • You'll be graduating with a different class than the one you entered with. This isn't necessarily a big deal, but you may find that you end up without a solid sense of class affinity.
  • You'll simply have less time to grow and mature. Many college students really blossom during senior year as their experience and confidence grow.
  • For many students, college is a wonderful time for making new friends, growing intellectually, and discovering one's self. Students are often in tears at graduation because they are sad to have college come to an end. Make sure you really want to rush this time of your life.
  • This is related to many of the above points, but with less time to gain research and internship experiences, and with less time to foster meaningful relationships with the faculty, you'll be in a weaker position when applying to jobs or graduate school. It's possible the money you save from graduating early will be lost with lower lifetime earnings.

These issues, of course, aren't a big deal for some students, and it's quite possible that the financial benefits outweigh all other factors.

A Final Word

Many colleges use fast-tracking as a marketing ploy. The undergraduate experience, however, is about so much more than earning enough credits to get a degree. Accelerated degree programs make much more sense for non-traditional students than for typical 18- and 19-year-olds who will grow so much socially and intellectually during four years of college. That said, the financial factor can't be ignored. Just be sure to recognize that there are both pros and cons to rushing a four-year degree.

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Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "How to Graduate Early from College." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Grove, Allen. (2023, April 5). How to Graduate Early from College. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "How to Graduate Early from College." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).