Last Updated: Jul 13, 2020
When most students think of college, they think of four years living away from home, learning in a campus community, and being independent. “College is the best four years of your life,” we’re promised. But it doesn’t have to be four years—and some colleges even encourage you to finish in less time. But graduating early isn’t for everyone and is often only beneficial in certain circumstances. Let’s take a look at why colleges encourage graduating early—and why it’s not always in your best interest.
Why we do go to college
Most students going into their college careers are excited to take a step toward independence and see something new—something other than the same bland walls they’ve been looking at their whole lives. But, obviously, we don’t need to go to college in order to get a change of pace. Students could just as well find a job and make enough money to move out of the house if sheer independence is what they seek.
But to get a really good job, one where moving out is possible, and to make the job search itself easier, students believe they need a degree. And that’s what college is for, right? To get your piece of paper that essentially says, “Yay! You know enough! Go get hired!” For many high school seniors and college students, yes, that’s the case. They just need that piece of paper to be more appealing candidates for job positions so they can move on with their lives and join the real world, which was always the end goal anyway. In which case, what’s wrong with graduating early? If you can get all of that valuable knowledge in three years, spend less money in tuition and fees, and enter the job market sooner, it makes sense.
Related: Why College Is More Than Grades
Why we should go to college
To understand why graduating early isn’t always ideal, students must first understand why college is important. A college degree is overwhelmingly necessary in today’s world, but it shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all reason to enroll at a university. If all you needed from a school was purely the information on how to complete tasks in your field of choice, you could get out of college much faster than four years—but that’s why a technical two-year school isn’t equivalent to most four-year colleges in terms of preparation and skills for a career. I constantly hear from graduates that much of what they learned in college—as far as technical skills go—has become obsolete; they learn everything they need within the first six months or year on the job. This was surprising and frustrating to me at first, but I quickly realized what was really frustrating was how little of my college education was focused on what really matters: learning just to learn.
While four-year schools are not technical schools, they’re frequently treated by students and faculty as though they are. In many college classes, if you’ve memorized the facts, or at least retained enough to correctly respond to multiple-choice questions, you’ve earned an A. Some classes are harder than others because the details are more intricate, and advanced courses may require more critical thinking in order to succeed. But many lower-level classes allow students to simply “get by” with the assistance of the professor. There are classes and professors that are exceptions to the rule, of course, but at most institutions, it’s still generally true.
How universities are different from technical schools
What’s really necessary, and the thing that separates a college from a technical school, is the critical-thinking component that leads to personal growth. The reason college is referred to as the best four years of your life is because those years are meant to be used to find yourself, understand what you value, and learn to think for yourself—not to think the way you’re taught, the way the media thinks, or even the way your parents think, but to learn how you think and how to do it better.
That kind of development cannot be fully achieved in four years, but why limit your growth even more by rushing through college? The time spent in school shouldn’t be minimized just to get through courses with the least amount of thought and effort possible. Whatever coding language you learn in class might become obsolete in five years, but your ability to reason through problems and adapt to changes in technology will remain—and will be applicable to your job as a manager, programmer, or CEO. These are the things that matter and keep you true to yourself, and they can’t be learned overnight. Problem-solving, critical thinking, and reflection can’t be crammed in the night before an exam; they’re a constant process of growth meant to be developed and prioritized in your college years.
Related: Liberal Arts Change Lives
Why colleges want students to finish in four years or graduate early
Many colleges push their students to graduate within four years, or early, because graduation rates are low—that’s the simple fact. Often, students who may not be able to maintain the grind will be on track to graduate in five or more years, and some end up not graduating at all because of it. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the national average four-year graduation rate in 2017 was 35% for public colleges and 53% for private ones. More students are graduating within six (54.8%) or even eight years (60.4%), according to Inside Higher Ed. Because colleges use graduation rates as a metric, to some extent, for the quality of the university (considered to be controversial by many), this is a primary focus. Programs like the University of Houston’s UH in Four encourage students to graduate within a traditional time frame, helping increase their four-year graduation rate.
However, some students just need extra time, perhaps to work to afford their classes, to take a full semester for an internship, or even to develop that crucial critical-thinking aspect of the college experience. For a number of reasons, wanting or having to take an extra semester or couple of years is common and isn’t something that should be frowned upon—by universities or by you, if you find yourself in that position.
Take the time you need
So what’s the verdict? Should students try to graduate in less time, take four years, or extend their time on campus? It depends on your situation, of course. Many students need to graduate college in as few semesters as possible for financial reasons and to manage affordability. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be a concern, but we don’t live in an ideal world. However, if you can afford it, don’t forget that college is designed to be at least four years for a reason. Take this opportunity to slow down, engage, and find value in each of your classes and experiences on campus. You’ll be working for the rest of your life—there’s no need to rush it. Let these four years of development and active thought run their natural course if you can.
Not sure where you want to spend your college years? Try searching for schools in a whole new way with our Lists & Rankings.