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Getting Through College Sooner

Done with high school at 18. Done with college at 22, masters at 23, doctorate at 26.

The rule of thumb doesn’t always apply. Sometimes an education takes longer, of course—slowdowns due to financial or health issues or unexpected circumstances, such as job or family matters. Or low grades.

But education can be speeded up as well. It’s not unusual for students to graduate from high school after only three years, and of course, homeschoolers have the kind of flexibility that makes similar situations all the more common.


It’s also possible to go through college in fewer than the traditional four years. There are essentially two methods to do so: start earlier—while still in high school—or increase your speed by increasing your course load. There are several options that use one or both of these approaches:

Advanced Placement (AP)

Advanced Placement is a program that allows the high school student to take a course for which he can receive college credit. He takes the course and then takes a standardized AP exam, administered by the College Board organization, to verify that he has done college-level work. Advanced Placement exams are available in Science, Math, English Language and Literature, Foreign Language, Social Studies, and Fine Arts. Several exams are available in each area; for example, in science there are AP credits available for Biology, Environmental Science, two areas of Computer Science, and three areas of Physics. For more information, see the AP website.

College Level Examination Program (CLEP)

The College Level Examination Program is similar to AP, except that no coursework is required. The student simply takes a standardized exam (again, administered by the College Board organization) to receive college credit for coursework that he has demonstrated proficiency in. The CLEP exams are available in all the subjects for which AP is available, plus several others—most notably business courses, such as accounting, marketing, and management. This is obviously a useful option for those considering further college training after a period of time in a career, but it is often used by high school students who have gained proficiency outside of class in one or more academic areas. For more information, see the CLEP section of the College Board website .

Summer School

This is obviously the most traditional route for shortening the calendar time of an academic effort. When I was in high school, my principal informed my parents that if I could take just one English credit at a public high school between my sophomore and junior years, I could graduate a year early. My parents, eager to save the year’s tuition cost, leaped at the opportunity. Similarly, most students can take 6 to 12 college credit hours in a single summer—some even more, depending on the college. In two summers, then, it’s possible to cover nearly a year’s worth of college work and thereby to save money since room, board, and tuition costs are typically higher during the school year.

There are other advantages to summer school. The coursework is more compressed, and the student is usually taking fewer courses than he would during the school year. This means that his mind is focused on fewer courses for a greater number of hours during the day, with the likelihood that his time is spent more efficiently.

Correspondence Courses

Many colleges and universities offer distance-education coursework, either by mail or over the Internet. Not all courses are available in this form, of course, but enough are to allow the student to take a significant percentage of his coursework in this way. A unique advantage of this method is that it frees the student’s daily schedule, allowing him more flexibility. There are many cases where taking summer school would greatly limit the student’s work hours and thus his earning potential during the summer; in the case of correspondence, he can schedule his coursework around his paying job.


Getting through college faster is not all peace, love, and happiness. There are things to watch out for along the way, and in many cases the student would be better served by not accelerating his education at all.

Things to Watch for in Specific Methods

• Not all colleges recognize all AP or CLEP credits. To see whether the college you’re interested in recognizes CLEP, see the CLEP website, or check with the college’s admissions department. Although about 90 percent of U.S. colleges accept AP, there are about 10 percent that don’t, and the number overseas is considerably higher. Check with the college’s admissions department.


  • As noted above, there are many courses for which neither AP nor CLEP credit is available.
  • There are costs associated with both AP and CLEP, though they are reasonable.
  • As noted above, summer school often interferes with the student’s ability to work during the summer.
  • Summer-school course offerings vary by institution and often from year to year. It’s often unwise to count on a particular course’s availability during a particular summer.
  • An unexpected episode of poor health during the compressed schedule of a summer-school course will often take the student out of the course much more quickly that it would during the school year.
  • Summer school does not allow time for the kind of reflection and wide reading or rehearsal necessary for some kinds of study, particularly in the arts and humanities.
  • Correspondence work requires a level of personal responsibility and discipline that is frankly unusual in most people of college age. The attrition rate in correspondence work is far higher than in traditional classroom work. Everyone starts with the best of intentions but few finish, and the attempt costs all of them time and money.
  • In correspondence work it is usually difficult to get the kind of remedial help and other personal interaction with a teacher that is more common in a classroom setting. For many students this is not a significant problem, but for a few it can make the difference between success and failure. Even email lacks a number of characteristics that help make communication between a student and his teacher effective.

Larger Issues:

Mental Maturity

Intellectual skills and personal maturity are not necessarily correlated—in fact, they are often worlds apart. The fact that a student can read a college text with understanding and pass a test over its content, for example, does not mean that he is able to comprehend, let alone evaluate, larger issues connected with the material. In much college material, ranging from literature to science, regurgitating facts and making sense of the subject and its ramifications are two very different things. Students placed into courses such as these, particularly in a secular institution, are at great spiritual and educational risk.

A second issue related to maturity is the educational sense that comes from life experience. For example, in the seminary where I teach, I notice a significant difference in the student’s ability to comprehend and apply the material and to ask the kind of insightful questions that increase his benefit from the course if he has been out in a ministry for a year or two before entering the program.

Personal Responsibility

It’s also true that older students tend to take the whole college enterprise more seriously than younger ones. They tend to apply themselves more diligently and to spend less time on the trivialities that younger students find so tempting. After I graduated from high school a year early, I spent that year working—not only to earn some money, which in my family was inordinately tight, but also to get some maturity before heading off to college. I was a late bloomer, and at 16 I was certainly not ready to be out from under my parents’ reasonable oversight. While the student is obviously older in college than he was in high school, the maturity issues in college are not all that different.

Social Issues

I’m not nearly as concerned with “socialization” issues in schools as, for example, most opponents of homeschooling seem to be. The record has shown that children educated in a multigrade environment, such as that provided by a homeschool in which there are multiple ages represented, are generally less susceptible to peer pressure and are not socially harmed by the supposed “isolation” from the single-age classroom.*

Having said that, however, I should note several potential problems for those attending college with students who are significantly older. The most obvious, of course, is that the younger student may be susceptible to social pressures from the older students that he is not prepared to handle. Another is that many students find their spouses in college, and the age difference may lead to difficulties in that experience. Third may be a difficulty to make and maintain meaningful friendships of any kind. Fourth, if the student values extracurricular activities, his opportunities may be limited there as well. (Picture the average 15-year-old going out for college football.)


It’s worth asking this question. Underlying all this discussion is the unstated assumption that accelerating college is an unqualified good. Is it? Why should someone seek to accelerate his college education? I think there are some good reasons, the financial benefit being one that comes most readily to mind. But why the rush to get on with life? Will a career started at 20 be more fulfilling or meaningful than one started at 25? Are we really in a hurry to leave pre-adulthood behind? Why? This is an especially important question if the pressure to accelerate is coming exclusively from the parents.

There are lots of options for young people coming of age in America today. Accelerating college is just one of many. For some, it may fit nicely into the larger picture of molding a life that brings God glory and edifies His people.

* The classic study on this issue was completed by the National Home School Education Research Institute.

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