Making plans, moving on: students graduate early, look ahead to future

When you get to college, people finally stop talking about your SAT scores, your ninth grade GPA and that honorable mention from the junior high science fair. On almost all counts, everyone starts again on even ground. Through a variety of methods, though, some students do bring with them to college the ability for advanced placement or early graduation.

While many students at Williams enjoy their lives in the Purple Valley so much that they never want to leave, others are determined to graduate early. According to Registrar Charles Toomajian, there are three ways in which a student can gain credit to graduate in fewer than four years – A-Level Examination grades, the International Baccalaureate Program and the Educational Testing Service’s Advanced Placement tests.

Credits awarded through these tests can be used to accelerate graduation, but may not be used to lessen the load of courses during a semester.

The most common of these approaches is AP tests. Compensation for AP tests varies by department, and usually a score of 4 or 5 is required. “Depending on the score that the student got on an AP exam, sometimes the credit is awarded toward a major, or toward graduation or towards both,” Toomajian said. “Since every department decides how much credit they can award, sometimes the AP score is equivalent to one semester course, and sometimes it is equivalent to one year long course.” In the broader picture, four credits allow a student to take a semester off; five credits are equivalent to a semester and a winter-study off; and nine credits allow a student to graduate a year early.

The Committee on Academic Standing must approve any credits used toward early graduation, but this process is usually just a formality. “The committee reviews the cases, and looks primarily at whether the student can complete the degree requirements, and usually no cases are denied,” Toomajian said. About 40 to 50 percent of the student body at Williams has the ability to use AP credits, but only a handful does. According to Toomajian only about 8 to 10 students per year actually use those potential credits toward graduation.

Opinions abound on whether it is a positive decision to use the credits and graduate early. “ I believe that the curriculum here is so nice that a student must take an advantage of that and take as many courses as possible,” Toomajian said. “Being here less than four years is useful in some cases though.” Many people want to study abroad for a semester or a year, and Williams might not give credit for the specific program in which the student chooses to participate. In that case AP credits allows a student to choose his own course of study without falling behind. Another very important issue is the tuition saved, if the student decides to graduate early. This is an understandable consideration and one of the more valid reasons for not staying a full four years.

Janet Iwasa ’99 is one of the few students to gain credit through IB tests. She said her reasons for graduating early are mainly financial, but that she didn’t even realize that it would be an option until her junior year. She plans to apply for graduate school next fall, but said she “doesn’t really have concrete plans” for the interim. She is happy with her choice, though, to take a semester rather than a full year off before continuing with school. “I thought a semester would be a good amount of time. . .to do something different. . .then I’ll be ready to start classes again,” Iwasa said.

Mike Sullivan ’99 chose to take advantage of the chance to get into the workforce sooner. “I decided that not only was work experience probably more valuable in my field (computer science) than academic experience, but I was getting tired of school in general,” Sullivan said. “Neither the registrar nor the department head hassled me on anything – I spent maybe a total of 20 minutes on the whole deal.”

Ema Williams ’99 based her decision on her career path as well. With an interest in the culinary field, she felt that Williams was “not exactly furthering that goal.” Though she considered dropping out of school, she determined that she should go ahead and complete her degree. “A good compromise for my parents and me was graduating a semester early,” she said. “It saves at least one semester worth of tuition, I still get my degree and I get to get out of college relatively soon.”

More commonly, AP credits are used by students for higher placement, rather than early graduation. Using AP credits for higher placement in different courses can be very beneficial to students, because it gives them “a possibility not to repeat information that has already been studied,” Toomajian said. Professors have mixed feelings toward this sort of advanced placement. “I approve of the AP credits used to place higher in some courses, but only to some extent,” Professor of English Karen Swann said. “AP tests do not necessarily test on the same material that ENGL 101 covers. Some students who decide to move to a higher level English course for example have not learned the material that well and so they struggle.” Toomajian was just as skeptical about the validity of AP qualifications. “I don’t believe that the AP tests are equivalent to any Williams courses,” Toomajian said. “Taking a course during high school years is definitely not the same as taking a course during college years – both the maturity and the understanding make the whole difference.”

Students tend to be in favor of AP higher placement, because it allows them more freedom in choosing courses. “I used my English AP credit to skip ENGL 101 and it helped me to take one of the courses that I really wanted to take and to spend less time on survey courses,” Aaron Carvell ’99 said. Some students also feel that without advanced placement, they would have to waste their time in lower level classes. “I think it is a really good idea to use AP credits for higher placement, because you don’t go over things you already know, but move right into a higher level matter,” Danielle Torin ’02 said.

Advanced placement and early graduation both benefit many students by allowing them greater control over their education, but few would encourage their use if the only impetus were to finish college faster. “If everything were equal, if the cost didn’t matter, and study abroad weren’t a determining factor and if a student would want to take the advantage of AP credits just to study for three years and go on with his/her life, I think that it should be carefully considered, having in mind how much Williams has to offer for a year more,” Toomajian said. Students who feel anxious to move on should step back and realize the incomparable offerings of a place like Williams.