How to Graduate College Early: When It Is Worth It and What Early Graduation Requires

Nicolas Cesare  | 

Paying for college is expensive. Since each semester will cause you to rack up more expenses and, quite likely, more debt, it’s not a bad idea to be thinking about graduating from college early. However, figuring out whether or not you should graduate from college early is not a simple decision. Let’s go over the pros and cons.

Have A Good Reason

College is tough enough as it is. If you’re putting in the overtime to graduate early, you should make sure that you have a good reason. Good reasons to graduate early might include:

  • You want to avoid additional student debt. Obviously you will spend more money on tuition, books, and room and board the longer you stay in college, so getting out early can be a good way to shave a semester or two off your total student loan debt.
  • You have a job waiting for you. The sooner you’re able to join the workforce, the sooner you’ll have a real income. If you know that you’ve got a career lined up for you after college, that’s a good reason to sprint through your education.
  • You have personal obligations that would be easier to carry out if you spent less time in school. Maybe you need to take care of your aging parents or maybe your spouse has gotten a job offer in another city. Whatever your reasons, it’s totally fine to want to finish school up early in order to keep your personal life intact.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the reasons why you might want to graduate college early, but whatever your reasons are, make sure that you’re ready for the challenge of graduating early from college. If you’ve made your mind up, here’s how to graduate early from college.

Start in High School

It’s funny to think about high school as being important to graduate early from college, but what you do before you ever set foot on campus can make a big difference for your college career. By taking AP or dual enrollment classes while you’re in high school you’ll be able to earn college credits before you’ve even applied for college.

These credits can be applied towards your early graduation, helping you to shave semesters or even years off of your college experience. Even if you’re not planning on graduating early, getting college credit in high school will enable you to skip past many of your core classes and get straight into the subjects that really interest you.

Take Community College Classes and Placement Exams

If you took a college-comparable course during high school or you’ve taught yourself a few college-level subjects, then it’s still possible to skip out of some of your college credits. By taking cheaper classes at a local community college or testing out of the basics, you can earn college credit without spending tons of money.

Max Out of Overload Your Semesters

Most colleges estimate that taking four or five classes a semester is plenty for the average student. However, if you plan on graduating early from college, you’re going to have to challenge this preconception. By going up to your max credit limit per semester or even going over it, you’ll be able to speed past the goal posts and graduate early.

If you do go over your credit load for the semester, you will probably have to fill out some paperwork and pay a fee. There is also a chance these additional costs will not be included in the cost of attendance calculation or reflected in your financial aid. Just make sure that you aren’t paying more in fees than you’re saving by graduating early.

Be warned, though. Taking six or seven classes in a semester is very difficult. Make sure that you budget your time wisely so that you don’t fall behind in anything. Having to retake a class could slow you down even more than cutting your course load would.

Take Summer and Night Classes

You don’t just have to cram extra credits in during the regular semester. Taking summer classes or night school can help you get all of your credits to graduate early without having to max out your credit load during the semester.

Take Online Courses

Online courses are another way to meet your course requirements outside of the standard system. Today’s online courses are just as rigorous as a regular college class, but you’ll have more flexibility to do the coursework on your own time.

Know What You Are Missing

Graduating from college early is a great way to reduce your student debt, but it’s not automatically the right decision for everyone. You should know what you’re going to be missing before you go down the path towards early graduation.

  • You won’t get as many internship opportunities. Internships take a lot of time and aren’t usually available until you’ve completed a lot of the coursework for your major. By missing out on internships, you could be hurting your career prospects once you leave school.
  • You won’t get to do as much research as you would if you stayed in school longer. Research opportunities (especially research positions that let you work during college) are another thing that won’t be available until you’ve taken many of your courses. If you skip out on these opportunities, you won’t be getting the full breadth of knowledge and experience from your degree that you could be getting.
  • Don’t count on studying abroad if you graduate early. Semesters spent abroad are more about experiencing a new culture and region and less about cramming in credits.
  • You will miss out on building relationships with your professors if you try to blast through their classes. A good relationship with a well-placed professor could turn into an influential letter of recommendation some day.

Graduating early from college can be a smart move if your situation calls for it. However, if you’re less concerned about student debt and you want to get the most from your college experience, it’s probably best to do the normal four years.

For more tips and guides, visit our student finance learning center.


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Nick Cesare is a writer from Boise, ID. In his free time he enjoys rock climbing and making avocado toast.

This post was updated March 29, 2018. It was originally published December 8, 2017.