Episode 112: Speeding Up College Graduation

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One of the biggest practical issues in higher education today is the rising and insanely high cost of a college education–obviously. The cost of going to college is not something we talk about a lot here at USACollegeChat, partly because there are so many other people talking about it all the time. But sky-high cost is the reason behind the topic we are going to discuss in this episode: speeding up college graduation–that is, graduating in fewer than the traditional four years.

Of course, given that so many students these days are taking longer than the traditional four years to graduate–so many, in fact, that six-year graduation rates are a standard part of college data reporting–graduating in fewer than four years takes on a new meaning. When I was in college some decades ago, everyone knew one or two kids who finished in fewer than four years, and we all thought those kids were incredibly smart. But there was no institutionalized plan for speeding up graduation–at least not at my university.

1. The Early College Movement

Speeding up graduation is something that Marie and I know a bit about.   Back in 2009, Marie and I and principal Chris Aguirre co-founded an Early College high school in Brooklyn. While many Early College high schools were concentrating on getting high school students into college courses earlier while still in high school, our high school concentrated on getting high school students out of high school quicker and into college full time.

We adopted Chris’s crazy idea that all of our public school students–most of whom posted just average or below-average middle school grades–could be put on a three-year high school completion schedule by using trimesters instead of semesters during the school year. To be clear, that meant that our students could graduate in three years instead of the traditional four. Well, it was hard work, but it worked. At the end of our first three years, about 65 percent of our first class of students graduated–a full year early–and went on to college. We actually beat New York City’s four-year graduation rate. By the way, virtually all of the rest graduated the following year, on time.

2. The NYU Story

So, Marie and I know that more education can be accomplished in less time, if someone is trying hard to make that happen and if those in charge have set up the framework to make it possible. It was with those fond memories of our accelerated three-year high school schedule that I recently read about a new plan at New York University (NYU), where a year of undergraduate residential study is now about $66,000. The article by Elizabeth A. Harris in The New York Times gives us some background:

[In February], [NYU] announced a series of measures that [makes] it easier to graduate in under four years, part of an initiative aimed at diminishing the university’s enormous affordability problem.

In some ways, the school is just catching up with its students. Ellen Schall, a senior presidential fellow and the head of the university’s affordability steering committee, which is tackling college cost on a number of fronts, said that about 20 percent of N.Y.U. students already graduated ahead of schedule.

“We were surprised,” Professor Schall said. “That’s part of what convinced us we needed to make this more transparent and more available to more students.”

Students have long found ways to make it through school more quickly to save money. But there is increasing momentum to formalize the process in the face of ballooning outrage over college costs and student debt ? while N.Y.U. is expensive, many other private universities [also] cost $60,000 or more a year. (quoted from the article)

I was also surprised that 20 percent of NYU students graduated in fewer than four years. Perhaps that is really a sign of the times–a confluence of high college costs, an increase in options for earning actual college credits while in high school through Early College and dual enrollment programs, and the fact that more and more students are taking Advanced Placement high school courses and exams to try to get high enough scores to earn some college credits.

According to the article, here are some ways that NYU is going to help its students graduate quicker:

. . . [W]hile students pay for 18 credits per semester, many actually take only 16, officials said, so the university will increase the number of two-credit courses it offers.

It will also allow many students to transfer in up to eight credits from other schools, like local community colleges where they can take inexpensive classes over the summer–in the past, this has been allowed on a case-by-case basis. In addition, the university has trained advisers to help students create schedules that will get them to their three-year goal. (quoted from the article)

Okay, so I guess if students took an extra two-credit course each semester, or 18 credits instead of the typical 16, that would give them 108 credits in six semesters, or three years, leaving students perhaps another 20 credits shy of graduation. Allowing students to transfer in a certain number of credits from cheaper summer courses or from college courses taken while in high school puts these students closer to the goal line. At that point, they would need to take several heavier-than-18-credit semesters or additional courses during the summer at NYU itself–both of which would cost money. No one said it would be easy, but a substantial portion of $66,000 is a lot of money to save.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that students would need trained advisers to make this work. I imagine that there are confusing regulations galore that no student could ever figure out on his or her own at every college in the U.S. I recall how hard it was to get our kids out of high school in three years. Marie and I spent countless hours scheduling kids and checking to make sure that all of the State’s and City’s graduation requirements were being met as we went through those three years.

3. Stories from Other States

In the article, Ms. Harris widens her lens and tells these stories about public universities:

Gov. John Kasich, Republican of Ohio, pushed to make it easier for students in his state to graduate from public colleges early by allowing more credits from high school or technical programs. Gov. Scott Walker, Republican of Wisconsin, included in his budget proposal this month that schools in the University of Wisconsin system should create a three-year degree for 60 percent of its programs by the summer of 2020. Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., which is a state school, has also been experimenting with three-year degree options. (quoted from the article)

I think it is significant that colleges in the University of Wisconsin system–which would hopefully include the flagship campus at Madison–might create three-year degrees for 60 percent of its programs over the next few years. Of course, we will see what happens to that proposal. But whatever happens, it seems likely that other such proposals in other states might not be far behind. It is also important to notice that public universities are making these moves. As you know, public universities are often the default college solution for many students who cannot afford private colleges. And, for many such students, the cost of four years at their state’s best public institutions is, unfortunately, not affordable, either.

Here is what Ms. Harris says about private colleges:

Among elite private institutions, official [accelerated]programs remain rare, though Wesleyan University, the Connecticut liberal arts school, announced a formalized three-year track about five years ago. (quoted from the article)

Let’s take a look at the Wesleyan plan, as explained on its website:

Students who graduate in six semesters (three years of normal course loads plus summer courses) may expect to save about 20 percent of the total cost of a Wesleyan education. The three-year option is not for everyone, but for those students who are able to declare their majors early, earn credit during Wesleyan summer sessions, and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities on campus, this more economical path to graduation can be of genuine interest. . . .

For most students, the greatest challenge lies in figuring out a way to earn . . . [enough] credits and complete the particular course requirements for the major in six semesters instead of eight.  Understanding the ways of earning additional credit and accelerating the pace of one’s semester standing is crucial for developing a feasible three-year academic plan. (quoted from the website)

Okay, saving 20 percent isn’t bad–not quite a full year’s savings, but enough to make it worth pursuing.

Interested Wesleyan students will have to earn credits faster and will also have to declare their majors early, presumably in order to ensure that they can get all of the major’s requirements met. So, no waiting around till junior year and no changes once a student is headed down a given track. Clearly, accelerated graduation is not for the student who is taking his or her time exploring subject fields and majors and even trying out more than one major.

Let’s look at the ways Wesleyan says that students can earn additional credits on an accelerated three-year schedule:

Most students who graduate early use a combination of pre-matriculant credit, summer credit, and in-semester course overload. . . .

Pre-matriculant credit.  Up to 2.00 pre-matriculant credits [that is, actually credits for two courses] may be applied towards graduation.

  • Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test credit.  In most cases (exceptions include Biology, English, Computer Science, and Physics), it is necessary to first complete a course in an appropriate Wesleyan department to convert an AP or IB exam into Wesleyan credit.
  • College courses taken in high school.  To be eligible for Wesleyan credit, the course must have been taken with college students and taught by a college professor on a college campus.  If the course is listed for credit on the high school transcript, it may not be used for Wesleyan credit. (quoted from the website)

Of course, we all understand taking courses in the summer and taking additional courses during a regular semester. But the ways to earn credit before a student gets to Wesleyan are especially interesting and specific. Wesleyan places clear and academically rigorous restrictions on using AP or IB test credit as well as on using credits for college courses taken in high school. For example, it will not take dual enrollment course credit, and it will not take credits from the type of college courses that many Early College high schools now run. I actually couldn’t agree more with Wesleyan’s position on both of those; in fact, our Early College high school put our third-year students into courses that Wesleyan would have loved: on a college campus, with other college students, and taught by a college professor.

So, given all of these regulations, how many Wesleyan students actually graduate early? According to the article, the Wesleyan president “estimated that about 20 Wesleyan students annually graduate in three years, up from roughly three a year before [we] made the option official” (quoted from the article). That’s a big increase, of course, though not a substantial portion of the approximately 750 freshmen Wesleyan admits in a year.

4. What’s the Downside?

So, what’s the downside to an accelerated college experience other than the intense and likely difficult academic experience that we have already mentioned? People seem to believe that the biggest downside of all is that students will simply miss out on what it means to have the full college experience?including making friends (and future connections) of all kinds, exploring extracurricular activities, taking advantage of internships and study abroad programs, and the like. In fact, students on accelerated schedules do engage in all of these, but it is probable that some things will be missed in the face of the considerable academic pressure caused by taking additional credits each semester and each summer.

Is the hard academic work and some missed opportunities worth it? Is going to a more expensive college that a kid loves for three years better than going to a cheaper college that a kid is less excited about for four years? Here’s just one more thing for you to think about, parents, as you get your own teenager ready to make a college decision next month.

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