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The Best Colleges for Graduating Early

According to The American, getting students through college in three years instead of the typical four years will greatly benefit the nation’s lethargic economy. As author Reuven Brenner points out, if the 4 million students who complete college earn an average of $20,000 annually, that could mean an additional $80 million stimulation. Higher salaries would obviously mean even more of a boost.

Many colleges and universities provide accelerated degree plans for students hoping to enter the work force. Not surprisingly, adult learners between 25 and 54 love the idea of these programs. A 2008 Eduventures study noted that 21% considered themselves “very likely” to enroll, and a further 32% claimed to be “likely.” Because these degree plans usually take between 15 months and three years to complete, depending on whether students opt for an associate or a bachelor’s, the “nontraditional” demographic finds them especially appealing. On average, adult learners are about 38.8 years old, married, and holding full-time jobs with an average salary of $76,800. One-third of them are parents of children under 18 who live at home. Sixty-five percent want to attend school in order to improve their salaries and performance in their current jobs, and 36% want to switch careers.

Is Graduating Early for You?

The obvious advantage to graduating early is entering the workforce as soon as possible and finding a job that much sooner. Even for students within the “traditional” age range with no kids or spouses, the possibility of saving money and time is certainly appealing. The College Affordability and Transparency Center, run by the Department of Education, can give you an estimate of how much traditional degrees will cost and how much you might save by abbreviating your academic careers.

But it takes more than just a desire for more time and a comfortable nest egg to fit in with an accelerated degree plan. Most programs court the career-driven who already hold a solid idea of what they want to accomplish post-graduation. Students unsure about their career goals would more than likely benefit from a traditional setup, as it provides them with more time, training, and guidance to make decisions.

“Balancing work, family, and coursework is always a challenge,” says Deann Sterner, Director of Academic Advising, Undergraduate Programs, at Bellevue University. Accelerated degree plans require just as many credit hours as their predecessors. Participants usally have to sacrifice summer vacations, sign up for minimesters, and/or take a larger-than-usual course load to finish within the given time and GPA parameters.

“Start planning early,” says Susan Strehle, Interim Vice Provost and Dean of Binghamton University’s Graduate School. “If you have even the slightest interest in obtaining your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in one shot, and you have some ideas about what you would like to study or what career you would enjoy, start talking to your advisor, professors, or another campus professional that you feel comfortable expressing your interests with.”

She adds, “Most programs require that your coursework be planned in a very specific manner with an advisor, and in order to ensure that all requirements are met on time, this advising process usually starts early in the academic career.”

Different schools offer different degrees in their accelerated programs. Some provide associate, bachelor’s, and graduate diplomas, though many programs blend undergraduate and graduate options. The Eduventures study noted that the adult students who find the accelerated offerings most appealing are more likely to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Most colleges and universities limit which majors are available in these programs, so anyone interested in a specific school should see if they even offer the degree in their chosen field.

The Schools

Binghamton University

“Approximately 50 students per year take advantage of Binghamton‘s accelerated degree options. We expect this number to grow substantially in the coming years,” says Strehle. “Currently, the most popular accelerated programs are Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Engineering to MBA 4+1.”

The school’s fast-track program blends a bachelor’s degree with a master’s and takes five years to complete. More than 50 majors are available, covering a diverse range of science, humanities, liberals arts, business, and performing arts subjects.

Tuition at Binghamton, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, “is variable and dependent on multiple factors, such as residency requirements or extra fees for particular programs.”

Strehle explains Binghamton’s payment options: “The structure of the Accelerated Degree option allows students to pay the rate of undergraduate study for the first four years of the program, and then students will pay the graduate rate for their fifth and final year.” She cites $41,394 for in-state tuition and $85,305 for out-of-state, noting that these figures only represent the “total cost of tuition and mandatory fees only for four years of undergraduate rates and one year of graduate rates.” Take them only as “rough estimates based off of the average tuition rates, and do not include estimates for room and board.”

Bellevue University

Nebraska-based Bellevue University accepts students with either 60 credit hours or an associate degree into its accelerated degree program. Those who do not meet these criteria may still catch up through military service, CLEP tests, or other equivalencies. Seventeen bachelor of science (BS) and two master of science (MS) degrees are available, with all of them available online and all but three with brick-and-mortar options. Most of the majors center around business, health care, and law and criminal justice. For the 2013-2014 school year, enrollees can expect to pay about $16,875 in tuition and fees, though the number might fluctuate based on hours taken and other variables.

“Approximately 3,000 students currently attend Bellevue University in undergraduate accelerated programs,” says Sterner. “Popular majors include: business, behavioral health science, heath care management, and project management.” No matter their majors or professional goals goals, they are welcome to hit up Career Services for “free assistance with resume writing, interviewing and career exploration.”

What makes Bellevue’s accelerated program stand out is its “cohort major” structure. This helps build camaraderie between students in the time it takes to wrap up a degree. “In a cohort major, a student will begin with a group of students and proceed through the entire major together on a set schedule,” she says. “The convenience of being enrolled in all of the required major classes at the start minimizes scheduling and streamlines financial details.”

Bellevue also has a new Flexxive Business Administration major that emphasizes self-pacing. Students choose the number of courses they’ll take for each six-month session. Those in the program also have access to faculty members and student coaches for guidance.

Temple University

Temple University’s accelerated programming options cover an extensive range of subjects and degree plans, including bachelor’s, bachelor’s combined with a master’s, bachelor’s and a professional degree, and bachelor’s with a master’s and teaching certification. However, potential students need to know that the school does not integrate curricula: students are expected to complete all the required classes for each degree, though some flexibility might be afforded when it comes to electives.

Students in blended degree plans receive their diplomas as they complete the necessary courses. Finish the bachelor’s portion, for example, and you receive the bachelor’s degree and proceed directly to the graduate level. Programs are divided into how many years each individual diploma takes; 4+1 means four for bachelor’s, one for master’s; 3+2 means three for bachelor’s, two for master’s; and so forth. Some undergraduates may be able to count up to 12 credit hours from their graduate program into the bachelor’s, which expedites the process.

As expected, students hoping to enter the work force early enjoy access to the Career Center just like their peers in non-accelerated programs. There, they can meet one-on-one with an advisor for mock interviews, resume assistance, information regarding upcoming job fairs, social media advice, and other services.

University of Michigan

Although University of Michigan’s accelerated offerings are not as diverse as some of their peers’, they deserve mention for high standards. In the psychology department, faculty members must invite students to participate. Once approved, students may begin taking graduate-level or upper-level statistics courses that count toward a master’s degree. Only seniors may enter the program, and if accepted, they will be eligible for grants and financial aid. Standard tuition and fees apply.

Michigan’s other notable accelerated degree plan targets individuals who already hold a bachelor’s or graduate degree and who aspire to become nurses. Known as the Second Career Program (SCP), it takes 16 months of intensive classroom study and hands-on training in actual clinical settings. Graduates exit the program ready to pursue licensing as registered nurses (RN), which requires an exam.

Enrollees in the SCP receive additional mentoring through the Second Career Alumni Mentoring Program (SCAMP). This initiative pairs up students with alumni already working within the nursing profession for guidance far beyond what career services departments offer. They provide professional insight meant to nurture up-and-coming nurses, answering questions, proffering advice, and even assisting in the job hunt.

Mississippi College

Because of its flexible evening schedule, Mississippi College is an especially viable fit for the working adults comprising their target audience. It offers six degree plans — five of them centering about business-related subjects and one in sociology — and classes occur in the evenings, twice a week. This structure allows students to knock out 30 required classes annually, compared with 24 for students in more traditional programs.

Tuition for the 2012-2013 school year runs $386 per credit hour, with a registration fee of $76 per session and a $25 technology fee for six hours or more and $15 a semester for under six hours. Participants in the accelerated program may consult Career Services should they desire further advice about their post-graduation options.

Boston University

Perfect for both “traditional” students and working adults returning to school, Boston University‘s accelerated degree plan wraps up a bachelor’s degree in as little as two years. The time investment requires two summers and four semesters, and the majors available are computer science and management studies. Like Bellevue University, Boston U’s students take courses within the “cohort” model, where they study alongside the same classmates the full two years.

Students who complete their accelerated degrees with a 3.0 GPA are guaranteed admission into Boston U’s graduate program for their subject. For adults going back to college to improve their job skills training and career opportunities, the school works with many corporations for tuition reimbursement.

Albertus Magnus College

Albertus Magnus College began providing accelerated degree plans and certifications for working adults in 1985. Participants may attend courses online, through a blended option, or face-to-face. Majors include a wide assortment of business and communications subjects, psychology, sociology, English, general studies, philosophy, religion, and humanities, and may be completed at the associate’s or bachelor’s level. There are also three certificate programs available — human resource management, management information systems, and business administration.

Participants choose between “team-based” and “modular” formats, depending on their circumstances. The former offers intensive courses that last between five to six weeks, while the latter allows them to choose two classes per every eight weeks. Albertus Magnus does accept a limited amount of transfer credits, and will count CLEP and DANTES exams as credit toward the accelerated degree.

For the modular format, students can expect to pay $1,398 for every three-credit course, a $50 application fee, and a $6 information technology fee per credit hour. Those opting for the team-based approach pay $408 per credit hour for tuition, a $50 application fee, a $50 registration fee, $6 per credit hour for an IT fee, and a $150 per course resource fee.

Albright College

At Albright College, students hoping to wrap up their degrees on time may take one of two paths. The Accelerated Degree Completion Program (DCP) offers bachelor’s degrees in six majors, requiring between 40 and 44 credit hours per semester, and classes meet for four hours one evening a week for five to seven weeks — supplemented by online learning. It takes an estimated 20-24 months to complete the program, which specifically targets adults over the age of 23 with work experience. In fact, if they already hold an associate degree, the school automatically qualifies them for a $2,500 scholarship. DCP is also a cohort learning model, with between nine and 15 students per class. Tuition covers absolutely everything, including textbooks and fees, and applies to all 10 campuses. How much students will spend hinges on their major.

Available on five campuses, the Degree Start Program only accelerates general studies courses to help students complete their bachelor’s faster. Like the DCP, it involves a four-hour blended class one day a week for seven weeks. Each class is worth four credits, so they wrap up the required classes quickly; Albright only accepts students with 48 or fewer credit hours. Best of all, along with the comprehensive tuition, enrollees receive a free course if they finish three Degree Start classes less than 12 months after finishing their first one. This could save them an average of $1,560.

University of Indianapolis

Enrollees in the accelerated degree program at the University of Indianapolis attend classes one night a week for five weeks, with new cycles starting every nine weeks. They may transfer in up to 30 credit hours from other schools or qualify via life experience, but they still need 124 hours to complete a bachelor’s degree. Available diplomas include a bachelor’s of science in organizational leadership, a bachelor’s of liberal studies, and an associate in life science. UIndy also allows students to mix accelerated with traditional courses. For the 2012-2013 academic year, the tuition for each accelerated class is $300 per credit hour.

The time breakdown the school recommends may not necessarily reflect every institution with an accelerated program. It does, however, provide insight into how many of these degree plans work. Traditional classrooms in a 14-week semester require an average of nine hours outside of class for every three hours inside. Accelerated courses lasting five weeks need 30 hours outside of class for every four hours inside.

Advice for Staying Ahead

“These programs are most beneficial for anyone who will need an advanced degree … in order to achieve a certain personal goal or occupation because they reduce the amount of time required to reach that stage in life,” says Strehle. “Typically, students who find the most success in these programs are those who are committed to their own education, have specific professional/career goals that they are working toward, and have good time management and organizational skills.”

If you want to thrive in an accelerated degree program and graduate early, you’ll need to follow a few guidelines:

  • Plan ahead: Because accelerated degrees drop students right into the workforce in three years or fewer, participants really need to know where they’re headed. Without a solid plan in place, major snags could entirely derail your educational pursuits. It’s also important to not lose sight of your ultimate professional aspirations, either.
  • Have specific career goals in mind: Not every accelerated degree inherently targets adult learners hoping to bolster their careers, but the programs’ structures make them a more viable option for them over “traditional” demographics. Students still trying to sample different fields — or who prefer interdisciplinary routes — will probably not work in these environments. The most successful graduates from an accelerated program know how the degrees fit in with their professional plans. Once you’re committed to a fast-track major, there isn’t much time to switch over to something else.
  • Manage time: This is the single most important factor in determining accelerated degree success. Poorly managed time wrecks an academic program. If you have kids, a job, or other responsibilities that might infringe upon completing classes or homework, you might want to ask the school how much time their accelerated degrees require before applying. In Sterner’s words: ” Allow time for study. More is expected of students in a short amount of time, so set realistic goals for study time each week.”
  • Manage stress: Accelerated programs are significantly more intense than their traditional counterparts. Planning ahead will help combat much of the anxiety that students might incur while enrolled. Especially if said planning ahead involves scheduling some rest. Your body and mind alike will appreciate the respite.
  • Ask for help: Reaching out to faculty members, other students, and even professionals will save valuable time and cut back on potentially debilitating stress. In an accelerated program especially, you cannot afford to lose precious hours or days trying to solve a problem you find particularly baffling.
  • Take part in study groups: Even students enrolled in cohort modules can benefit from the camaraderie and support study groups provide. Participation helps everyone involved sharpen their knowledge of subjects with which they might struggle. Sterner agrees: “Engage with faculty and fellow students. While this is required to meet minimum requirements for passing each course, take the opportunity to connect, network and learn.”


Career-driven students capable of handling intensive workloads should consider accelerated degree plans. So many of them provide far more flexibility than the traditional diploma while saving enrollees money and, ultimately, time. They’re options well worth exploring for the up-and-coming or established professional who wants all the skills without spending too much of their lives in the classroom.

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