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Students on the Fast Track

Vicki Nelson

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Four years of college. Freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. It’s the usual path for most students.

But many students, either deliberately or unexpectedly, take different paths. Some find they need more than four years (the national average is closer to five years), some begin college only to take time off and then return, some take five years and finish with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and some are on the fast track and finish in less than four years.

There is no single path to graduation. Although a growing number of students are taking longer than four years to complete their degree, there is also a growing number of students who finish in less than four years. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the number of full-time students finishing college early is 10% at public institutions and 12% at private institutions.

Why Take the Fast Track?

There are several reasons why your student might want to finish college more quickly than the expected four years.

One obvious reason is cost. According to the College Board, in 2021–2022 the average cost of tuition and fees at a public 4-year institution was $10,740 in-state and $27,560 out-of-state. Cost at a 4-year private institution averaged $38,070. Reducing the time spent in college by a year, or even a semester, can mean significant savings.

Although saving money is a big incentive, in addition to saving on tuition, students can get into a first job and begin earning a salary more quickly. Staying focused on finishing in three years also demonstrates a strong work ethic which may be attractive to future employers.

Is the Race to Finish Early Worth It?

Before your student decides to commit to moving quickly through school, they need think about whether this is the best path for them.

Planning to finish early may be good for students who know what they want to study and are ambitious and self-motivated. They’ll need to be clear about their goals and stay focused.

Students working to finish 120 credits in three years may find that some of their social and extracurricular experiences are compromised, and they may have to forfeit key experiences such as upper-level research opportunities, studying abroad or internships. However, some students may find opportunities for these experiences after they graduate at lower cost than another year of tuition.

Although college in three years may sound appealing to parents who are paying the bulk of tuition, it’s important not to pressure your student. The plan works best when it's your student’s idea and when you talk through the pros and cons together. Find out what your student expects from their college experience and how intense a plan they are willing to undertake.

If your student decides to attempt a degree in three years, there are essentially two paths. Your student might find a college that has a 3-year program in place (more than a dozen colleges already have “college-in-3” programs) or your student may chart their own 3-year path.

A Three-Year Program

Since 2005, a growing number of schools have been putting programs in place that cut the time to a degree down to three years.

Accelerated programs can take differing formats so your student will need to do their research and compare programs. Some programs may be online, others offer the same courses but in more intensive formats, others require students to take summer and/or winter intercession courses. Some programs may have longer courses covering more material, so the student takes fewer classes for longer periods.

Your student may need to apply separately to an accelerated program and requirements may be more stringent, requiring a higher GPA since the work is so intensive. Some may be more geared toward “adult learners” with life or work experience who transfer some credits from another institution.

Generally, financial aid is the same for an accelerated program as for a regular degree program.

Succeeding in an intensive program requires self-motivation, dedication and perseverance. It isn’t for everyone. Students need to make sure they balance academics and other life activities, take care of their physical and mental health, and reach out to professors early if there are issues.

A Do-It-Yourself Approach

Attempting to complete a traditional four-year degree in three years may not be possible at every school or in every major or program. Accelerating your college experience on your own requires early planning, focus, consultation with advisors, and a willingness to get creative.

As an example, here’s how one of my current students made her early graduation happen.

While Terry (not her real name) was still in high school, she knew she wanted to finish college early to get started in her career more quickly and to save money. She worked with her family and her guidance counselor to get started in her junior year. Terry’s high school curriculum included AP courses and 12 credits of dual enrollment courses at a local college. Over the summer and during winter breaks, she studied for CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exams and had completed 7 of them (21 credits) by the time she began college. During the summer before she began college, she received permission from her college to take one course early.

Terry entered college with 33 credits already completed – technically beginning college as a sophomore. Each semester she took the maximum number of credits allowed (18) and took courses in summer and winter sessions.

Terry will graduate in December, two-and-a-half years after she began college. Her plan was intensive, but Terry has friends, is active in at least one major club on campus and serves as president of another. She decided not to study abroad but is considering a trip to Australia after she graduates for less than the cost of another semester.

Terry is exceptionally focused and motivated, but her journey illustrates what's possible with early planning and hard work. Although they may not choose to be quite this focused, for a student with drive and a goal, the fast track can work.

Direct or Winding Path?

It may be tempting to insist that your student get through college as quickly as possible, and some students are anxious to get in and out with speed. But choosing the fast track comes with three essential considerations:

  • Understand what's involved in any accelerated program – whether it's an official program or one you create. Be sure you understand the pros and cons of moving quickly through the college experience.
  • Know yourself well enough to predict whether you will thrive in this type of program. Be clear about your goals and what you want from the college experience.
  • Be flexible. Beginning with a 3-year goal is fine but be willing to change your timetable if necessary. Everything may not go exactly as planned.

Obviously, the goal of completing college early is not for every student. Students need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages. For some students, who are especially focused and anxious to move on, it's the right path to take. For others, four years feels about right.

Together as a family, you can discuss your student's plans and potential timetable and come to a conclusion about the most comfortable approach for everyone.

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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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