College costs have some graduating early

Taylor Berge didn’t walk into college planning to graduate early.

But going through her four-year plan with her guidance counselor, the Johnsburg High School grad realized it was a possibility.

“I looked at it as I can spread everything out and take four years of school and pay for all of that and have a short-term summer job, which barely gets you everything, or I can cram it all into one and I’ll have the loans, but once I get my actual job, it will be a lot easier to pay it off quicker,” Berge said. “I just prioritized that way instead.”

While the decision means the 21-year-old is missing out on what would have been her senior year – she plans on visiting her friends often – it also means she can start graduate school at Elmhurst College a year sooner to get her master’s degree in psychology.

She graduated from Hope College, a small liberal arts school in Holland, Mich., in May with a degree in psychology and two classes shy of a degree in communicative disorders.

Despite rising concerns over tuition costs, Berge’s path isn’t typical.

According to a 2011 report by the nonprofit Complete College, 37.4 percent of Illinois students who enroll in a four-year college will finish in four years or less. An additional 9 percent takes five years.

Calling colleges “four-year programs” is very “misleading,” McHenry West High School Principal Marsha Potthoff said. A change in major can easily derail a student because all the classes won’t necessarily transfer over.

Potthoff was a guidance counselor for seven years and then director of guidance for five years.

Graduating from college early can be difficult without dual credit or Advanced Placement courses, and colleges are tightening up on when they’re accepting those.

She sees colleges that used to give credit to students who received a three and up on AP tests, which run on a grading scale of one through five, now awarding credit for only scores of five.

High schools still are encouraging students to take the courses, though, because the harder courses prepare students for what college will be like, Potthoff said. They also give students an edge in applying to schools, which have become more competitive across the board.

“Even state schools have a waiting list,” she said.

Deciding whether a student can graduate early is a conversation students should have with their college counselor, Johnsburg High School guidance counselor Kim Ault said.

Every school has different requirements for graduating.

To save on tuition, Ault sees more students looking at going to community colleges, such as McHenry County College, for two years and then transferring.

That’s what Ault did, and she thinks that’s one of the reasons she was able to graduate debt-free.

Community college also is an option for students who would prefer to live at home, don’t know what they want to major in yet or need to improve their academic skills before entering a four-year college, she said.

A U.S. Education Department survey released in December 2010 followed students as they entered four-year, two-year and for-profit higher education institutions.

It found that of the students who entered a two-year public college with the hope of eventually getting a bachelor’s degree, 10.2 percent of them did get a bachelor’s degree within six years.

An additional 6.1 percent were enrolled in a four-year college.

Of those students, 67.5 percent did not receive any sort of degree or certification, the study found.

More students and parents also are turning to scholarships and financial aid, Ault said.

The financial aid night hosted by Johnsburg High School is better attended in recent years than it has been in the past, and more students are filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, she said.

Schools also are getting the word out on all the scholarships they come across, Ault said.

And when schools send out the financial aid package, Potthoff recommends going to the school with information about where else the student was accepted and asking for another consideration.

Her daughter was able to get an additional $2,000 from the small liberal arts college she attended, Potthoff said.

“Everybody knows that you don’t accept the sticker price when you go to buy a car,” Potthoff said. “Not everyone knows that about college. We’re trying to get that word out.”