Key takeaways

  • Accelerating your course of study can save you money in the long run, but you will want to be sure your financial aid applies to your enrollment — especially if you are enrolled in more than the standard number of credit hours.
  • Prospective employers may find your initiative to finish school early to be an impressive quality. However, you may risk burnout and the forfeiture of your financial aid's grace period.
  • There are pros and cons to weigh when considering an accelerated degree program. Be sure to consult your academic advisor (either through your high school, college or both) before deciding to embark on this path.

If you ask anyone, they’ll tell you that getting a college degree is a four-year affair — and rightly so. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, most college students take between four and six years to finish their degrees. While it may be challenging to get your diploma in less than that, there are some financial benefits to consider. Here’s what to know.

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Is graduating early worth it?

Whether graduating early is the right move for you will depend on several factors, including your values, your goals and how you handle pressure.

Pros of graduating early

There are a number of reasons why you might want to graduate early.

You could save money

The most obvious benefit of graduating college early, and one of the most important ones, is the prospect of saving money.

The average cost of attendance for resident students at four-year public colleges is $27,940 a year, while nonresident students spend an average of $45,240 a year, according to the College Board. Those attending private nonprofit schools spend even more: a whopping $57,570 a year.

So, shaving off a year from your studies could save you thousands of dollars in tuition and fees alone — not to mention room and board, plus meal plans if you live on campus. What’s more, graduating early could help you finish college in a better financial position, as you won’t need to borrow as much in student loans, if you’ve been taking them.

Increase your net worth faster

The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, on average, having a bachelor’s degree can boost your weekly earnings by about 65 percent. This data is compared against a high school diploma with no further education. By graduating early, you’ll be able to enter the professional world faster. That means you’ll be able to reap the salary benefits of having a diploma sooner than your peers who choose to stay in college for an additional year.

Can look good on your resume

When applying for jobs, recruiters will most likely see your early graduation date as a positive. It’s a sign that you’re committed, driven and hardworking, so it could give you an advantage over other applicants.

Cons of graduating early

While there are a number of benefits, graduating early also has a few reasons to take the traditional four-year route.

Your financial aid may fall short

Because you’ll be taking more classes in a short period of time and financial aid is awarded on a yearly basis, there’s a chance that your package may fall short.

“Financial aid for students attending college year-round can be a challenge,” says MorraLee Keller, senior director of Strategic Programming at the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). “There may be institutions that have different kinds of funds that they award for the fall and spring semesters, but those resources are not available during the summer term.”

Likewise, some colleges will charge you an overload fee once you go over 18 credits per semester, which is another factor to consider when accelerating your program.

If your financial aid falls short, you’ll have to cover any remaining costs out of pocket or take out private student loans to bridge the financial gap, directly impacting any potential savings. That’s why Keller recommends talking to your school’s financial aid office to see what options are available before taking the plunge.

You could miss out on other experiences

By overloading yourself with coursework, you won’t have as much time for extracurricular activities or sign up for clubs or internship opportunities. This may not seem like a big deal, but these things can help you network beyond the classroom — something that can be extremely beneficial when it’s time to look for a job and you’re asked for references.

Start paying your loans faster

Both federal and private student loans typically have a six-month grace period. By cutting your time in school short, you’ll have to start paying your loans sooner, which will inevitably affect your finances.

Burnout

Piling up classes can lead to burnout, especially if you’re also studying during the winter and summer terms. This, in turn, can be detrimental not only to your health but also to your academic outcome, as you may not be as sharp as usual due to high stress and exhaustion.

How to graduate early

There are three main approaches to graduating college early, depending on where you’re at in your academic journey, as well as how much course load you can handle at a time.

Earn college credits before starting your degree

If you’re a high school student and already have your mind set on finishing college early, one of the quickest ways to get a jumpstart on your degree is to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

AP courses were created by the College Board and allow high school students to take college-level classes while in school at no additional cost. There are currently 39 AP courses to choose from, ranging from math and science to arts and history. However, the most beneficial to you will depend on your desired college major.

At the end of the class, you’ll be able to sign up to take an AP exam. Passing this exam with a score of three or more will automatically grant you college credit at most institutions. However, each of these exams currently have a $98 fee, which you’ll have to pay out of pocket. Besides that, not all schools offer AP courses. To find out if yours does, talk to your high school counselor or visit the College Board website.

You can also get college credit while in high school through dual enrollment. When you apply for dual enrollment, you’re basically signing up to take courses at your local community college or university while still being enrolled in high school. But just like with AP exams, you’ll have to see if this is something your school offers. Also, these classes tend to come at a cost for most students, but there are organizations, like College Credit Plus, that will help you get these for free upon meeting certain requirements.

Take classes during the winter or summer terms

Another way to accelerate your degree is to take classes during your college’s winter or summer terms.

Both the winter and summer terms allow you to complete classes in a matter of weeks instead of months. However, the winter term is usually shorter than the summer term, lasting between three to four weeks, so you’ll most likely only be able to take one or two classes, maximum.

The summer term, on the other hand, lasts between four and six weeks. If your college happens to split the summer term into mini terms, you could tackle between three to four classes in that short period.

Enroll in more than just five classes per semester

Most bachelor’s degree programs require you to complete 120 credit hours, with most courses consisting of three hours each. That means the average student takes between four to five classes per semester to finish within four years.

If you increase your course load to six classes per semester, you could finish your degree in less than four years — three and a half, to be exact — while taking seven will allow you to graduate in about three years.

Is graduating early worth it?

Graduating early definitely has its benefits, but there are also some considerable drawbacks to keep in mind when making this decision. Whether this is the right move for you will depend on several factors, including what your ultimate goal is, how well you handle pressure, what you value the most and how financially stable you are.

Before you make any decisions, make sure to schedule an appointment with your high school or college counselor so they can advise on what the best approach is. In the end, the most important thing is that you finish your degree and are able to make the most out of your college experience — however long it takes.