How to graduate from college early

For many students, college is a once-in-a-lifetime experience of making friends, joining clubs and, of course, getting an education.

While earning a bachelor’s degree typically takes four years, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 47% of students finish in that time period. Other students will creep into a five- or six-year graduation. But for many college goers, each year can bring more financial strain. Graduating from college early might be a way to save money and launch their career sooner.

Key takeaways

  • It’s possible to graduate early by earning college credits ahead of time and maximizing your course load.
  • However, if you do take a heavy course load, it’s important to keep your grade point average (GPA) and mental health in good standing.
  • Saving money, avoiding additional student loan debt and entering the workforce sooner are all reasons to graduate early.
  • Keep in mind that an early graduation might limit your opportunities for things like extracurricular activities, a study-abroad trip and an internship.

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How to graduate early

Paying for college is possible with sources of funding like federal student aid, student loans and scholarships. But if money is a concern, it might be helpful to consider graduating from college early. To graduate early, you might need to earn credits in advance, take heavy course loads and stick to a rigorous graduation plan. But by earning your bachelor’s degree in two or three years, you can enter the workforce sooner. You’ll save money on tuition. And you might impress future employers.

Here are seven ways to get started on an early graduation.

1. Earn credit in high school

While earning college credits in high school might seem premature, it can be a smart—and affordable—way to get ahead of the game.

Many high schools offer advanced placement (AP) classes that allow students to learn college-level curriculum. And by taking the AP exams, students can earn college credit. For example, if you take AP Statistics and pass the AP exam, you might not have to take an equivalent course in college.

Another option is to take community college classes through a dual-enrollment program. And the International Baccalaureate (IB) program offers courses and exams that some colleges will accept as credits.

Students could earn a full semester of college credits while still in high school—saving time and money as they pursue their actual college degree.

2. Work with an academic adviser to know your graduation requirements

As you’re enrolling for college, consider connecting with an academic adviser to discuss an early graduation plan. Academic advisers can help students manage their course load, get questions answered and achieve educational goals.

If your goal is to graduate in less than four years, an adviser should be able to tell you which classes to take and when. They may also have advice on how to study well and find tutoring, if needed.

3. Test out of courses

Did you know that you might be able to earn college credit by proving you already understand the subject? The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) offers 34 college course exams for introductory topics like history and social sciences, composition and literature, science and mathematics, business and world languages.

By studying for a 90- to 120-minute CLEP exam—instead of taking the class—you could earn a passing score that counts for credit at 2,900 colleges in the U.S.

4. Focus on school full time

Although many college students pad their experience with elective classes and extracurriculars, it might be best to stick to the basics if you want to graduate early. This includes taking only the courses you need and minimizing social clubs, study-abroad trips and part-time jobs.

It’s a privilege to be able to attend school full time without having to work for extra money. But if you’re able to graduate early, you can start earning college-graduate wages sooner.

5. Take a heavier course load when possible

A typical full-time college semester consists of 12 credits. But depending on the college, you might be able to take up to 15, 18 or 20 credits. Adding an extra eight credits per semester could accelerate your bachelor’s degree by a year or more.

Just keep in mind that a heavy course load could lead to burnout and grades dropping. It might be worth limiting how many classes you can take before your performance and mental health start to decline.

6. Take summer and online courses

Summer classes are a way to earn credits between semesters. You’ll typically learn the same information as you would in a regular course but in a shorter period. Just keep in mind that you might give up the chance to find an internship or earn money by working over the summer.

Online classes could also help you squeeze in more credits in less time, as virtual learning cuts down on commute time and can offer more flexibility for your schedule. In fact, 70% of students surveyed by BestColleges think that an online education is better than or equal to an in-person education.

Note that tuition costs still apply to summer and online courses. So while taking these courses might help you complete your degree in less time, you’ll have to foot the bill—or get financial aid—to do so.

7. Keep your GPA up

It might seem obvious, but following the steps above won’t help you graduate early if you’re not able to pass your classes. Talking with an adviser could help you plan a manageable course load and cross the finish line early with your grades intact.

Should you graduate early?

Graduating from college early is a personal choice that depends on the student’s needs and goals. Here are a few benefits of an early graduation:

  • Save money on tuition. The cost of tuition alone—not including expenses like textbooks and rent—at a public four-year institution is about 10% higher today than it was in 2010-2011. Even if you save for college, graduating early could help reduce the number of semesters you have to pay for.
  • Avoid additional student loan debt. Many college students graduate with some student loan debt. But the less you accumulate in tuition, the less debt you’ll owe. You can also learn how to consolidate your student loans and pay them off faster when you graduate.
  • Kick-start your career. As graduation gets closer, you can start applying to land an internship or get a job. Entering the workforce even a year or semester early can help you grow your earning power and start on a path toward financial freedom.

There are some potential downsides of graduating early. In addition to keeping up with an intense class schedule, you might miss opportunities to grow your network, study abroad or explore all your career options.

How to graduate from college early in a nutshell

You can graduate early by earning class credits in advance and taking a heavy course load—which can save you time and money. But you might miss out on other parts of the college experience. Ultimately, the decision to graduate early will depend on your expectations for earning a degree and starting your adult life.

As you prepare for your future, there’s another thing to consider: credit.

Building credit in college could help you down the road when it comes to meeting goals like buying a house, buying a car and more. You can learn more about how student credit cards work—and see whether a student rewards card from Capital One is right for you.

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