Graduating early provides a rare path for students

Seniors read the commencement booklet during Tufts University's 158th Commencement on the Academic Quad on May 18, 2014. (Nicholas Pfosi for Tufts University)

For most seniors, the end of winter break marks the beginning of the final semester between them and an undergraduate degree. However, some students take the relatively rare collegiate path of graduating a semester early.

According to Dean of Undergraduate Studies Carmen Lowe, very few Tufts students choose to graduate a semester early each year, and even fewer choose to graduate a full year early.

Liliana Schmitt, who graduated in December 2016 after her senior fall, cited finances as the main reason she chose to graduate early.

“I would not be at this university without the financial aid I am receiving,” Schmitt said. By not enrolling in the spring 2017 semester, she does not have to pay tuition for the semester.

While foregoing a chunk of tuition is a large benefit of graduating early, Associate Dean for Student Success and Advising Robert Mack noted that there are numerous reasons students may consider graduating early.

“The reasons range from wanting to have time off before graduating school, having an opportunity to start a career or job earlier, some have financial reasons and some international students have their reasons as well,” Mack said.

Although this academic path requires a good deal of early planning, several students expressed that they were fortunate to have a good start on the process.

“I got really lucky, in that I took a lot of classes each semester early [in my collegiate career],” Schmitt said.

Luck seemed to be a common theme among those who have been able to graduate early. Tufts alumnae Alicia Sanders-Zakre (LA ’16) and Nicola Chang (LA ’14) also mentioned luck in their journeys to graduating early — a year early in their cases.

Sanders-Zakre, who used three pre-matriculation AP credits and three summer classes to graduate in 2016, decided in her sophomore year that she wanted to graduate early. She noted that taking the three summer classes was significantly cheaper than paying for a year of tuition.

“At this time, I felt it was the best path for me personally and professionally,” Sanders-Zakre said.

One experience that students who graduate early seem to share is a strong support system from professors, deans and administration.

“There is no how-to guide on graduating early on the Tufts website,” Sanders-Zakre said. “While institutionally, Tufts makes it very hard to graduate early because of the [residency] requirement, on an individual level, I met nothing but incredibly helpful people.”

Schmitt agreed that faculty and students at Tufts reassured her of her decision.

“I talked to mentors around me [and] found [the] support of other seniors who were graduating early,” Schmitt said.

Chang took online classes in addition to summer and pre-matriculation credits in order to graduate in 2014.

“You have to pretty much decide in your first two semesters and be on top of things,” Chang said about graduating early.

Chang also mentioned how she averaged between six and seven credits each semester, while most Tufts students take four to five classes each semester.

These students had to take extra classes because Tufts’ residency requirement, which according to the Tufts Bulletin for the 2015-2016 academic year “requires eight semesters of full-time study for the baccalaureate degree,” can hinder a student’s ability to graduate early.

During the recent economic recession, the policy was changed to include exceptions to help students who took an interrupted leave from Tufts graduate on time, according to Lowe. Students were allowed to use pre-matriculation credits and summer classes to “catch up” with the rest of their graduating class. However, the policy also allows students who have not taken leave from Tufts to use these credits to graduate early, as the aforementioned students have done.

Nevertheless, some students have reservations about the residency requirement, questioning its necessity, accessibility and the reasons it is in place. In a Nov. 25, 2013 Tufts Observer article, Ben Kurland (LA ’15) accused the policy of favoring Tufts’ more privileged students, as some students did not go to a high school wealthy enough to offer or prepare for certain AP courses.

“[Of] the almost a million people who took an AP exam last year, only a quarter of them were low-income students,” Kurland wrote. “Of those, less than half scored above a grade of three or above on any AP they took in high school. Tufts only accepts grades of four and five for credit.”

Lowe acknowledged this concern, but she also pointed out that the exceptions to the residency requirement were primarily put in place to allow for students who have missed an extended period of time to graduate on time with their peers. According to Lowe, the policy was not meant for students to use to graduate early.

“The policy went into effect around the time we had an intense economic recession, [coinciding] with a lot of families who were under economic pressure,” Lowe said. “So we extended the policy to allow students to use it to catch up and graduate on time, go part-time or graduate earlier.”

Some students also criticize the residency requirement as a way for Tufts to get four years of tuition out of every student.

“I do think the policy is very restrictive and another way to ensure that they [Tufts] make as much money from each student as possible,” Schmitt said.

Chang also took issue with the necessity of policy for all Tufts students.

“I couldn’t wrap my head around the reasoning [for the requirement], and I don’t think it should be necessary [for a] Tufts degree,” Chang said.

Mack offered an economic perspective of the issue.

“I would agree that we use that policy to think about our budget and using our resources accordingly,” Mack said. “Of course we rely on tuition, [as] it is a piece of revenue generation.”

Mack pointed out that if the residency requirement was changed, Tufts would have to alter another policy in order to balance the budget. According to Lowe, this would entail charging students for enrolling in more than five courses per semester, which Tufts does not currently do.

While Lowe is a proponent of the concept of graduating early, she wants to make sure students are doing it for the right reasons.

“Traditionally, a college degree is equivalent to four years and not simply about checking courses off a list,” Lowe said. “Students need time to absorb information and gain leadership opportunities.”

She acknowledges that there are students who personally feel like their best option is graduating early, but she worries that some students are foregoing important opportunities to be an integral part of the Tufts community.

“Tufts gives you four years to develop as an individual, as an adult and to connect with your peers, and I think it is sad to forego this,” she said.