Getting out earlyEarly graduation rates are on the rise. Since 2010, the number of students opting to get out early has jumped by 30 percent. Over the last few years, more and more students have chosen to end their educational careers at Duke in September or December rather than in May. In 2013, this group made up almost a quarter of the total graduates—24 percent, up from 20 percent only three years earlier. Although it might be that the start-up celebrity status we often associate with leaving college early has finally caught up with Duke, the more likely explanation is that students feel that their time and money is better spent elsewhere.
Undoubtedly, at the heart of the rising early graduation rate lie financial considerations. Duke is not cheap and has not gotten any cheaper over the last few years. Many find it hard to justify the hefty price tag prima facie, and that justification becomes more difficult when students have the option of finishing early. Although money likely accounts for most of the early graduation trend, it is also likely that many students choose to graduate early because they no longer see college as the place for learning. Instead, they may feel that their education would be better continued outside Duke's hallowed neo-gothic walls. Early graduates like these hail from all disciplines—they might be entrepreneurs eager to test out their business skills and innovation in the so-called real world, or the lifelong student of the humanities who sees the world as her classrooms and is keen to explore. Others may have promising jobs awaiting post-graduation or are simply burnt out from almost two decades of school.
Each of these justifications speaks to two opposing trends we see in higher education. The first is a widespread instrumentalization of the college degree, which is symptomatic of modern attitudes regarding college. Politicians, parents and students question the exact monetary value of spending four years at a place like Duke and ask whether their tuition dollars would be better spent elsewhere. We have lamented the instrumentalization of college in the past, as this attitude does not do justice to the personal and intellectual exploration that attends a Duke education. This personal growth cannot be substituted for a high paying salary. That said, the decision to save tens of thousands of dollars is entirely justified.
The other trend cuts directly against the instrumentalizing current. This trend is embodied by students who believe they can learn more on their own, and we see nothing wrong with that. If students have extracted everything they can from Duke and feel ready to move on, then all the more power to them. In any case, the rise in early graduation rates challenges the value of the four-year college experience and forces us to question what constitutes a higher education at a place like Duke.
Ultimately, we recognize that graduating early is a highly personal choice on the part of students and their families and that students should do what makes most sense for them and their life goals. Whatever the reason behind their departure, we wish these early graduates the best of luck moving forward and hope that our paths may cross again someday.