How to Graduate College Early

How to Graduate College Early
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on October 9, 2020

Share on Social

Higher education is a relic. From general requirements to the duration of a bachelor's program, today's college practices are from a bygone era. Many say a broad and prolonged course of study builds complex, flexible skills that prepare you to engage with the world and jump from role to role in a successful career.

Critics of the four-year degree, however, argue that every year of college adds to the total cost of the degree. What's more, nearly half of students don't graduate. Leaving college without a degree can seriously damage higher education's return on investment.

This is why so many students want to fast-track their degrees. By earning a college degree in less time, students can save money while still earning the undergraduate credential they need to start their career.

3 Methods for Graduating College Early

It's possible to graduate college in three years or less for some majors, but few students do. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 41% of college students graduate within four years.

Graduating on time or sooner — even by just one semester — means getting a jumpstart on your career and spending less time paying off student loans. Here are three ways you can plow through college to earn your degree and break into that job market more quickly.

Earn College Credit During High School

One of the easiest ways to graduate college early is to start early. Coming into college with credits allows you to start off at higher course levels and stay a step ahead. High school students can knock out a full semester's worth of required courses well before college even starts.

Many high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes and exams, for which some colleges award credit. Other schools allow students to dual-enroll at nearby community colleges.

You can earn college credit at certain schools for passing AP and IB exams.

Another great option is to take summer courses at a community college. High schoolers can rack up professional certificates this way. Earning practical skills in fields like medical administration or real estate may count toward a college's elective requirements.

Just make sure to check with the community college — and ideally the four-year college or university you know you want to attend — to ensure the credits will transfer.

Test Out Of Class Topics You Already Know

Transferring college credit can be a headache. Every institution maintains its own course requirements, its own categorization method for academic fields, and its own rulebook for accepting outside credit. Nevertheless, a growing number of colleges are awarding credit for what they don't have to teach.

Students can test out of intro-level college courses by taking a CLEP exam.

Through the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), students can test out of 34 intro-level college courses. Administered by the College Board — the same organization behind the SAT — CLEP exams count toward English, math, science, and other general education requirements at nearly 3,000 colleges. By passing one test, you can receive up to three college credits.

Most colleges also require incoming students to take a foreign-language placement test to gauge their fluency in a language other than English. If you studied a foreign language throughout high school (and maybe middle school), you may already meet your college's foreign-language requirement and therefore not need to take any further language classes.

Max Out Your Course Credits Each Semester

Taking a full course load all year with summers off means graduating in about four years. To graduate early, you'll need to take more credits during the school year and/or enroll in classes over the summer. It's important to keep your grades from suffering, so try to spread out your course load as much as possible, with night classes and summer courses.

Most colleges limit the number of credits students can take per term to 15, 18, or 20 credits, depending on the school and whether it uses the quarter or semester system. In some cases, colleges will make special exceptions. Just keep in mind that some colleges charge extra fees for taking additional credits.

Pros and Cons of Graduating College Early


You'll save money by attending fewer terms of college. Keeping student loan amounts down maximizes the value of a college degree. It shows prospective employers your impressive work ethic. You can use your summers to keep studying and get ahead. You can more quickly launch into the career you want to have. You'll get on the job market and start making college-grad wages sooner. You'll maximize your projected lifetime earnings by being in a position to earn promotions earlier.


Some colleges charge extra fees for taking additional credits. A tight timeline could prevent you from getting the full college experience. You may risk your GPA by taking on too many hard courses at once. You'll likely miss out on summer programs and internships. You'll get less time to explore new ideas, digest your learnings, and uncover a different calling. You might have to forgo study abroad and research opportunities. You'll have a smaller network of professors and peers to help launch your career.

Should You Graduate College Early?

Graduating early means spending less money earning a degree and more time earning a living. The year you shave off college becomes your first year on the job. Not only do you receive an extra year of wages, but you also potentially fast-track promotions and higher wages.

While students who took four years or more to finish college are just entering the job market, the early graduate is hitting their second or third year in their field — and likely already seeking a new role and a bigger paycheck.

While students who took four years or more to finish college are just entering the job market, the early graduate is hitting their second or third year in their field.

That said, higher education isn't just about the career you get out of it. The college experience includes conversations, exploration, and detours, but a student on a three-year timeline might feel too crunched to take advantage of these opportunities.

Ultimately, a college education is intended to develop well-rounded individuals, and well-roundedness takes time to develop. Leaving college early means less time to get to know your professors, build a college circle, and participate in the extracurriculars that make college the unique experience it is.

But if you're passionate about a field and know what kind of career you want to establish, graduating early can be a wise decision. It all depends on what your goals are and how you hope to accomplish them.

Feature Image: Sam Edwards / OJO Images / Getty Images

Feeling first-day-of-college jitters? Learn what to expect and how to prepare for the first day of class. Looking for a good school in the Southwest? Check out our list of the top 10 online colleges in the southwestern United States. Students can make college life easier by bringing 10 documents that are essential for study, work, and other aspects of student life.