How the Rise in Early Graduation Could Help Students' Wallets

College Features
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As most of his friends donned caps and gowns on a sunny spring morning last May, 22-year-old Brian Miller put on slacks and a polo before heading out to another 9-to-5 day at the office.

Miller, who graduated from the University of Michigan in December 2013, decided to trade in his last semester of homework, house parties and high tuition costs for an extra five months of real-world work experience. And he’s happy he did. “I was so ready to get out of there,” Miller says. “I wanted to just hurry up and take care of my degree.”

That’s a feeling that, in recent years, more college students are beginning to share. According to a 2013 study at Duke University, the number of students who chose to graduate a semester early had increased 30 percent in the last five years. While the perceived pitfalls are missing out on all the end-of-the-year shenanigans and throwing a cap into cold gray clouds instead of warm sunshine, the benefits have begun to lure proactive students past another 15-credit block schedule.

Like Miller, many of them cite employment opportunities as one of their main reasons for ditching the books ahead of schedule. Miller’s was an engineering job in a Minnesota jet factory—but the rush to get out the door wasn’t necessarily brisk and easy. “I had one semester where I was taking 21 credits,” he says. “It was hellish. But graduating early was worth all that extra work. I came in with 10 AP credits, so that helped, too.”

The rise in student interest in Advanced Placement, or AP, credits is perhaps parallel to the rise in early grads. According to the College Board, around 2 million high school students took 3.7 million AP exams in 2013, more than doubling the number of tests taken ten years ago. Today, the average high school student is encouraged to take three AP exams before attending university. Depending on the school, that can translate to up to 20 college credits—or one whole semester—earned before a student even sets foot on campus.

Chris Ryba, 22, employed this plan of attack. In high school, he earned enough AP credits to enter college at a sophomore level. “You need 12 credits to be a full-time student at Michigan, and I started having to fill in random gaps just to make it to 12. That’s when I got the idea to get my degree early,” Ryba says. “I figured I didn’t want to have to keep paying for school if I didn’t have to.”

That’s a decision that ultimately saved Ryba roughly $14,000.

The convenience of job-hunting early and the stability that comes with graduating early is one thing. But perhaps the financial reward for cutting out early is the biggest selling point. According to the College Board, the average inflation-adjusted cost to attend a four-year private university has increased 146 percent in the last 30 years. For public schools, it’s a 225 percent spike. That rounds out to an additional $18,500 per student spent on tuition alone. Campus Consultants, a financial aid consulting service in New York, anticipates the average sticker price for in-state tuition at a public university to clock in at more than $41,000 within the next 20 years. Its estimate for private schools? Around $130,000 per year.

“There’s this kind of mentality instilled in us about going to school for four years—it seems like the four-year collegiate experience has been ingrained in the Big 10 and Big 12 schools,” Ryba says. “But at the end of the day, colleges are businesses. They’re profiting off of us being there for four years, even though we don’t have to be.”

Current in-state tuition at the University of Michigan rings in at around $56,000 for four years. That $14,000 Ryba saved from a couple AP examps and credit-heavy semesters was enough to secure his first apartment and fund his post-graduation trips around Europe and Michigan. “My friends used to joke that I was on vacation,” Ryba says “I was really working on setting a bunch of personal goals. During my time off, I started looking at things I wanted to change about who I was and my direction for the future.”

Meredith Williams, a recruiting coordinator at Iowa State University, says one of the main concerns administrators have about early graduation is that students are reaching for the future too soon. She says she thinks some students may not be mature or experienced enough to handle both the freedom and responsibility that come with graduating several months ahead of schedule. “Rather than the specifics of did this student graduate in this month or the next, I think it’s more important to look at their experience and readiness for the workplace,” Williams says. “What might hurt you in graduating early is that if you are someone who wasn’t able to do an internship or even get involved.”

Many disagree. Like Lillie Haugh—a sophomore student at the University of Kansas who plans to graduate a semester early in December 2017. Haugh says she thinks students in her class are more prepared for the real world than those who graduated a few years before her. In her own case, at least, she nailed down her major at the beginning of her freshman year. She started researching physical therapy programs as soon as she knew she wanted to go into medicine. Haugh says having her class schedule mapped out right off the bat is what’s helping her finish her degree early.

“People are really spending time researching, figuring out what they want to do, and sticking with it,” she says. “ That’s something I did, and that’s helped me with my goal of graduating early. I haven’t had to rearrange my schedule or made a change that required me to take [additional] classes.”

While more students are working toward knocking out their degrees ahead of schedule, there are still some who need a little extra time. According to the US Department of Education, less than 40 percent of undergraduate students finish their degrees in four years, with 60 percent of them taking almost six years.

But as for Miller and Ryba, with thousands of dollars to spare and two jobs secured, they haven’t looked back.

“I think this is something that might take off,” Ryba says. “I think graduating in the spring is super hyper-sensationalized. Most of my friends could have finished early. If people shifted their perspective a bit, they’d realize that graduating early isn’t really that big of a deal.”