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September 4, 2012 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Help my cousin: How does a gifted kid with middle-class parents go to an elite college for as cheaply as possible, with as close to zero debt as can be managed?

It's been about 15 years since I went to college, and as far as I can tell the student aid terrain has changed a lot. I've been asked for advice by my aunt, but I feel a bit at a loss. Is my sense right that the most elite schools (Harvard, Stanford, Yale) are much more generous with aid than they used to be? Am I right that elite schools under that mark are not sufficiently better than state schools to be worth the cost? Is there much in the way of global scholarships, or is everything pretty much institution-specific? Are there schools to which a high-GPA, high-SAT-scoring, likely humanities-majoring kid should *definitely* be applying in the present moment? Where does my cousin have a good shot at a free-ride?

Any advice would be deeply appreciated.
posted by gerryblog to Education (39 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
At least as of a few years ago, Stanford waived tuition for families making less than $100,000 a year, and also waived room/board for those making less than $60,000.
posted by zsazsa at 4:44 PM on September 4, 2012

You can do a quick-n-dirty estimate for Harvard here. Many top-tier/Ivy/big endowment colleges and universities have need-blind policies - that is, if the kid gets in, but they can't afford to go, the institution will figure out a financial aid package that will make them able to attend. And lots of places waive tuition if the family income is below a certain level (keep in mind that fees and room and board still might have to be paid for somehow).

It was back in the 80s, but I couldn't have afforded to go to my flagship state U; I went to an Ivy for less because of the financial aid offered.
posted by rtha at 4:47 PM on September 4, 2012

Princeton is also need-blind and offers loan-free financial aid. The Financial Aid office will calculate the family's expected contribution based on income and expenses. The student might be expected to take on summer jobs or work-study during the school year, but will graduate debt-free.
posted by segfault at 5:03 PM on September 4, 2012

Many of the small, prestigious, liberal-arts colleges will also have needs blind admissions and serious financial aid endowments. Amherst is one that specifically does not require students to take on debt as part of their package (wish they said what the others were!).

I think that's an important consideration that gets overlooked. Many schools will have tuition waivers and some portion of aid as outright grant or scholarship and work-study but still require you to make up the rest with either parental aid or student loans. It would be good to find out which other ones do not have a loan component of their aid packages.
posted by marylynn at 5:05 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Apply for scholarships. ALL of them. Even ones s/he doesn't quite qualify for. Even small ones.

I belong to an organization that gives out scholarships, preferentially (but not exclusively) to kids of members. Nothing big, but $500 doesn't suck. And last year, we hat THREE applicants - With 20,000 members of the organization in my state alone.

Also, you may want to discourage the whole "elite" school idea. They'll get 10x the debt, but only a marginally (if at all) better education. And yeah, for the first job out of college, "Harvard" opens doors. For the second job, "BA in foo" amounts to little more than a checkbox HR fills in while asking about your real work experience.

FWIW, if the school does offer some financial aid, pay very close attention to the details of "work-study" programs. At my own alma mater, any income from work study counted dollar-for-dollar against your financial aid, so you basically worked for nothing.
posted by pla at 5:06 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Many schools will have tuition waivers and some portion of aid as outright grant or scholarship and work-study but still require you to make up the rest with either parental aid or student loans. It would be good to find out which other ones do not have a loan component of their aid packages.

Yes. This is my question. My cousin and her family are interested in ways she can go to college with no loan load at all.
posted by gerryblog at 5:10 PM on September 4, 2012

On reloading, obviously you should ignore my comment about 10x the debt if s/he can get into a school that will basically cover everything.
posted by pla at 5:10 PM on September 4, 2012

A quick read shows virtually all of the above still expect parent and student contributions up to FAFSA expectations before needs blind/no loan aid sets in. Most colleges will have some kind of "how much is this going to cost" and "how much aid can I expect" calculators on their website, usually under the info for parents or financial info sections-Princeton's is sidebarred in the above link but here is the direct link . The good ones remember that colleges have many hidden costs in books, fees, laundry, clothes, travel home, etc. Unless something very special is going on, it's extremely unlikely that even a full ride scholarship/no loan aid will cover all expenses. Also note, aid may be subject to change if the school receives a different amount of scholarship funding in subsequent years and so has to re-apportion aid. Not to mention annual reviews of aid-based need anyway.
posted by beaning at 5:12 PM on September 4, 2012

Based on my own fairly recent experience:
Financial aid is really good at most "elite" schools. Not just Harvard, Stanford, and Yale but any that could be compared to them (some other Ivy League, MIT, UChicago, Amherst and similar small colleges). It's worth applying to a bunch of these. Many of them tout a "no-loans" policy. In general, look at the school's endowment. The bigger it is (and the less it was impacted by the financial crisis), the better financial aid they're going to have. Some of these schools' endowments were mismanaged, and they had to reduce financial aid when I was applying, or start requiring loans again. They may have bounced back.

It's also worth throwing in applications to other places that are still "elite" but not as well-known or rich (ex. Rice), because sometimes they just randomly give out really good scholarships to entice accepted students who might choose to go to a school with a bigger brand name.

Finally, there are a lot of "worse" schools that will throw a full ride at her if she has a good GPA and SAT scores. She should also go for National Merit Scholarships; different schools will supplement the amount you get from the National Merit fund.

Washington University in St. Louis is flush with cash, good academically, and you can win a full- or half-tuition Danforth scholarship. There are likely school-specific full-ride scholarships like these at other schools around the country.

Most schools, even those with good financial aid for low-income families, expect middle-class families to take out loans. Apply anywhere with a no-loans policy.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:14 PM on September 4, 2012

Penn (my alma mater, current grad school, and current employer) has a "no-loan" policy for traditional students. I don't know the specifics any more.

A lot of schools with large endowments have similar policies; it's a bit of an arms race, since schools that offer these programs are pulling in tons of applications, which helps their admissions numbers, and this, rankings. It's a buyer's market, IMO (at least for top-tier students). The flip side is that these colleges are getting tougher to get into.

Admissions are easier and scholarships are amped up if the student in question is a "get" for a university: underrepresented minority, from a small and/or distant area, etc.

Basically, put in the work to send out a ton of applications; it's a big investment (time and money), but it should pay off.
posted by supercres at 5:19 PM on September 4, 2012

Honestly, she'll have a much better shot at a full ride by looking at colleges a tier or two below the elites. Harvard received 35,000 applications for their Fall 2011 class and accepted just 6 percent of those students. A tier down - let's say Williams just for a point of comparison, without derailing into a discussion of tiers - received 6,600 applications and accepted 19 percent. Ideally, she should look for a school where her profile (SAT scores, grades) place her in the top 25% of the admissions pool. Being a candidate who raises the overall profile of the class can result in a ton of merit $. There are a lot of wonderful colleges in this country beyond the "top 20."

Great resources:

College Navigator, the national center for education statistics (where I quickly grabbed the stats referenced above)
NY Times, "Colleges that Award Merit Aid"
College Confidential message boards (recommended with a giant grain of salt; fully of very snobby people who think it's hardly worth going to college if you don't go Ivy)
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:26 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

My son started college last week (public liberal arts school.) However small private liberal arts schools were throwing 80K - $100K scholarships at him with the acceptance letter. Not coincidently, that is the level of scholarship that leaves you needing to come up with 20-25K per year, or about the same as what a public school will cost. He interviewed for a full ride at Virginia Wesleyan, but didn't get it. The other schools where he got big offers were similar, smaller liberal arts schools that aren't necessarily household names. My son got dozens of offers to apply for free while skipping the essays. If we could do it over again, we follow through on every one and see what happens.
posted by COD at 5:26 PM on September 4, 2012

My experience was exactly opposite of Sweetie Darling. The state schools would have required much more of a parent contribution, where as the ivy schools picked up everything, due to middle class income. Don't rule out the top tier schools if the kid has the chops to get in.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 5:28 PM on September 4, 2012

Nickel Pickle, I wasn't talking about publics - I meant second and third tier privates. Sorry that wasn't clear. Most publics are so stretched right now financially, at the same time their applications are going up due to family economics. There's really not much incentive for them to award merit aid.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:33 PM on September 4, 2012

Get scholarships and work during the summer. My info is several years old but... If the kid scores well on the PSAT, the kid would qualify for National Merit Scholarship, which is good for some schools. And at that level, the kid will have a ton of offers for free (stipend for room/board/laptop) university at the second or third tier level. I wouldn't choose that, but they are valid options.

My cousin went to undergrad without any loans. She did a ton of clubs and other community work in high school, and applied to all the scholarships (like the Best Buy, local community, etc) and basically got tuition covered. She also worked two or three jobs every summer for room and board.
posted by ethidda at 5:39 PM on September 4, 2012

There are schools that just automatically offer a full scholarship to all National Merit winners. U of Alabama is one I believe.
posted by COD at 5:41 PM on September 4, 2012

"Middle class" depends a lot - my roommate and I are from similar class backgrounds, it seems at first, yet I pay more than four times what she does because I'm from a place with higher cost of living and my family's middle class salary is nominally larger. For her "middle class" family, our prestigious private school cost half as much as public. For me, it costs a few times what a public school does.

A lot of (especially private) not-quite-top-tier schools offer fat merit scholarships - as a merit scholar, you can get everything paid by Bama or fairly sized inventives from a lot of schools where you will, honestly, get a better education, such as Eckerd - taking on 5 grand or less a year in loans is probably worth it for a liberal arts school where others are really there to learn (speaking from the experience of my friends who alternately chose non-super-elite private and large public schools).

Ivies, Stanford, etc. often offer generous financial aid, although many subtract scholarships from aid amounts rather than the amount one is personally expected to pay, making outside scholarships far less helpful for the rest. Really, anyone with a shot should apply, and compare financial aid packages, to avoid the "what if".

Wash U often appeals to those seeking elite universities with better aid as well.
posted by R a c h e l at 6:03 PM on September 4, 2012

Am I right that elite schools under that mark are not sufficiently better than state schools to be worth the cost?

Unless you live in a state with a very high profile top-ranked state university, I would certainly not recommend turning down an acceptance to, say, Dartmouth or Cornell simply because it isn't Havard/Princeton/Yale.
posted by deanc at 6:21 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might look into Canadian schools, if you're willing to think outside the box a little. Tuition is going to be in the $10,000/yr ballpark for an international student, which is a steal (cheaper than in-state tuition at large American public schools). McGill and Toronto were both ranked in the top 25 worldwide for 2011/2012, which I'd think could reasonably be said to qualify them as elite by academic standards. Socially, of course, they're going to have a very different feel than the Ivies or New England liberal arts colleges that you may be imagining; to my mind this is a plus, as are the very cool cities they're located smack dab in the middle of. They both offer a slew of entrance scholarships. Feel free to memail if you want to hear more about this option (I went to McGill on a scholarship, it was awesome).

I don't think your cousin should be scared of taking on a small debt load, by the way. Yes, lots of people have problems with student debt, it's an important issue right now. But needing to take out, say, a few thousand a year in subsidized Stafford loans to cover rent is not even remotely the end of the world, and I think should be considered as possibly worthwhile if the choice is between an outstanding nearly-free college education and a mediocre totally-free one.
posted by ootandaboot at 6:26 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Does this gifted kid have an interest in serving in the military? If so, the military academies (Army, Navy, Air Force) offer an elite college education at "no cost"... at least no financial cost ... but you have to want to be an officer for at least five years after graduation.
posted by evilmomlady at 6:34 PM on September 4, 2012

I would certainly not recommend turning down an acceptance to, say, Dartmouth or Cornell simply because it isn't Havard/Princeton/Yale.

To clarify, Dartmouth and Cornell are both Ivy League schools. They're not a tier down.
posted by Miko at 7:08 PM on September 4, 2012

I believe the odds are quite long (say 100 people a year or so), but the Regents' Scholarships at the UC campuses cover "full financial need". (The website doesn't state this explicitly, which makes me wonder if things have changed. Or maybe it's a way of saying the scholarship is in the amount of loans you're offered--outside scholarships and Pell Grants subtract from the Regents' amount.) The best bit from a high school kid's perspective is there's no application. If you live in California, you get invited for an interview. If you don't live in California there's an "alternative selection process" which in reality is just picking some people (at one point there were phone interviews, but they were apparently a logistical nightmare and abandoned). The non-financial benefits are pretty useless, as much as they might talk them up. Priority registration would have been mildly useful my first year (it didn't exist at the time and I got crappy registration slots). Courses are much more over-subscribed now than they were five years ago, so it's probably more valuable now.

I think the next most desirable scholarships in the UC system are the Alumni Scholarships (which are funded by alumni associations, hence the name). I seem to recall this required an essay. (And maybe an interview? I didn't get that far.)

There are full scholarships available at some (all?) CSUs, but I don't know anything about that, beyond that they exist.
posted by hoyland at 7:29 PM on September 4, 2012

Also, you may want to discourage the whole "elite" school idea. They'll get 10x the debt, but only a marginally (if at all) better education. And yeah, for the first job out of college, "Harvard" opens doors. For the second job, "BA in foo" amounts to little more than a checkbox HR fills in while asking about your real work experience.

In my experience as a youngish person working in a competitive field (and with friends in other competitive fields) in New York City, this is not entirely true.

I mean, it's true that as one gains experience, where you went to school begins to matter less and less, especially in terms of names on resumes.

That said, the people I know who went to Ivy League schools are leagues ahead of everyone else in terms of connections, opportunities, first jobs, grad school admissions, etc. There are a lot of things that are just not on the table for me, as someone who went to a non-prestigious school, that would be handed directly to someone from an Ivy. I know this from experience, through knowing people from different educational backgrounds. It is an almost unquestionable truth, to me.

On the other hand, if by "elite" we're talking Hampshire or Tulane or Skidmore or something? Meh. In those cases, there really is no concrete difference between going there or going to a state school, especially if you factor in the differences in student debt. Immediately after college, a lot of doors were open to me simply because I had no debt. People I know who had $100K worth of loans HAD TO get corporate-world jobs immediately, and many of them felt pressured towards professional grad schools in order to defer the debt in the short term and be in a better position to pay it off in the long term.

Additionally, I'd say that if this kid is not looking at a trajectory where they move to the Big City and have to compete with recent Ivy grads for jobs or internships or whatever, none of this is really important. It's certainly possible to make a great life for yourself with a degree from a state school. Outside of this weird New York bubble I find myself in, I don't know anyone who is suffering for lack of attending an "elite" university.
posted by Sara C. at 7:51 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

To clarify, Regents' scholarships are awarded by each UC campus separately, not system-wide. (And I suppose some of them might actually interview out-of-state applicants.)

Also, you may want to discourage the whole "elite" school idea. They'll get 10x the debt, but only a marginally (if at all) better education. And yeah, for the first job out of college, "Harvard" opens doors. For the second job, "BA in foo" amounts to little more than a checkbox HR fills in while asking about your real work experience.

I disagree with this (for all the 'real world' experience I have, which is close to none). My brother went to Yale. I went to a Berkeley. I've definitely encountered people where you can tell they're thinking "Why did you go to a public university?" but see my degree as prestigious enough that they have to acknowledge it, whereas they see my brother as legitimately part of their world. Irritatingly, these are the people in power. I assume he'll continue to get some snob boost for the remainder of his life. (He'll always earn more than me, but that's not because he went to Yale--I think I torpedoed my future earning potential going to grad school.)

In any case, I think one shouldn't dismiss the snob factor. It's definitely not a reason to go to one of those places, but one shouldn't deny it exists. (I'm a little biased. I came home from my Harvard interview no longer wanting to go Harvard. The woman who interviewed me was the embodiment of everything I didn't want to grow up to be. Funnily enough, I didn't get in.)
posted by hoyland at 7:51 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your cousin's first step should be trying to estimate what her family's expected contribution on the FAFSA will be.

My college (a top small liberal arts college) used the FAFSA in concert with other factors to determine my family's expected contribution and then offered a grant for tuition, room and board, living expenses and travel costs minus that amount. In my case, this meant that I took out Stafford loans plus a small private loan my senior year which covered the difference between my grant and the bill for room and board and tuition, and work study, my summer earnings and my parents covered the rest (basically living expenses). Recently, my school has phased loans back into their packages- I graduated this year so I was grandfathered in to the no-loan program.

My understanding is that my school wouldn't give me a grant larger than my family's expected contribution, because pretty much any school is going to expect that parents or the student will help pay for their education, either through loans or cash. How much can your cousin's parents afford to pay? My parents didn't have a lot of cash to help me out, but they always paid for my transportation home and paid my phone bill, I had health insurance through them, etc. and it all helped.
posted by MadamM at 7:58 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

The comment about Dartmouth/Cornell vs Harvard/Princeton/Yale is, I assume, a reference to the notion of the "lesser Ivies", which is to say the rest of the Ivy League beyond "the golddigger sex appeal of the richest Ivy, the hippie sex appeal of the most liberal Ivy, or the masturbation appeal of Princeton."

I thought of another option that hasn't quite been mentioned yet: distinct honors colleges within large state universities. They generally have money dedicated to attracting top students away from the top tier, and also will toss those students plenty of perks: exclusive prime housing options, preferential course registration, small honors seminars, funding for study abroad programs, support for research involvement, intensive advising from professors, etc. I have some friends who went this route and it was a pretty sweet deal.

On preview, it's just not true that there are no schools that will subsidize your college education beyond the Expected Family Contribution calculated by the FAFSA. It's true, though, that plenty of schools will consider themselves to be meeting your need completely if they cover the difference between the EFC and their cost of attendance. The trick is figuring out which schools are which.

Also, bear in mind that a lot of what is available will depend on exactly how outstanding the applicant is. There's a pretty big difference between "3.9 GPA and 2100 SAT" and "perfect SAT and perfect GPA with perfect scores on 11 AP tests"...
posted by ootandaboot at 8:07 PM on September 4, 2012

Assuming that military service isn't entirely out of the question, ROTC scholarships can pay up to 100 percent for four years, plus money toward books and living expenses. These days, the odds on your cousin getting an Active Duty commission (that is, forced to go into the military full-time) are pretty low -- Reserve commissions mean your cousin would have to join a unit wherever he or she ended up and (most likely) go one weekend a month and two weeks a year. The Army takes a lot more humanities majors than the Navy and Air Force.

(I admit I'm biased, but I got two degrees with zero student debt thanks to Army ROTC and the GI Bill.)
posted by Etrigan at 8:18 PM on September 4, 2012

Exactly what income do you mean by middle class? Many families in say... the 60k to 200k income range call themselves middle class, although the only school that would give need based aid to those approaching the 200k mark would be Harvard. Questbridge is a program for low income (typically < 60k for a family of four).

It is unlikely that the family will pay the EFC as given by the FAFSA. The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student aid does what it says on the tin-- it determines what federal aid a student is eligible for. Colleges that are generous with their own money for need based aid usually require more information (typically their own form or the CSS Profile). As of last year colleges have been required to have a net price calculator. This is probably a better estimate of what the family will be expected to pay, but it's only an estimate.

These are the schools with no loans policies.
posted by oceano at 8:48 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agree with Sweetie Darling. This was essentially my strategy for college apps (~12 years ago). Fortunately, my parents paid for a fancy private college counselor who knew all the schools really well (and that's a whole other AskMe, but I'd say they got their money back in my scholarship), but basically I applied to schools that were in the top 50 but not mega-Elite. I ended up going to Tulane, which I believe still gives a lot of merit-based aid - they gave me a 50% scholarship. I knew tons and tons of kids with the same scholarship, and quite a few with full rides.
posted by radioamy at 9:09 PM on September 4, 2012

I second the recommendation to look into honors programs within state schools; many of the smart kids I went to high school with went into the various honors programs at the University of Texas. Some of them got merit scholarships through the university which required, among other things AFAIK, that they maintain certain GPAs.

ootandaboot is correct that not every school caps aid once (Total Cost- EFC) is met (Harvard, for one). However, a school with a policy like my school had can say that they meet all demonstrated need for every student- the trick is figuring out how they determine demonstrated need. Using the FAFSA can help your cousin's family get a sense of how realistic meeting that calculated need will be for them, even if the numbers are not exactly what they end up facing.

If your cousin is applying for college for next year, he or she is probably visiting colleges. Visiting is a great opportunity to talk to financial aid people at the school- or even better, current students who know how the school's system works. It's an awkward topic of course (maybe more so at elite schools), but no one will know the system better than a student who has been through it herself.
posted by MadamM at 10:22 PM on September 4, 2012

Came in to recommend Canadian schools as well, but I see that ootandaboot has it covered. I went to McGill, and it was awesome. And cheap. And in an awesome city. Highly recommended!
posted by Grither at 3:58 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

As far as zero debt goes, Washington and Lee University in Virginia has the Johnson Scholarship, which is merit-based and a completely full ride (including room and board).
posted by bonifate at 5:44 AM on September 5, 2012

I was also going to suggest ROTC - my little brother (who is all humanities, not a math/science bone in his body) is at a good (not top, but decent) small liberal arts school on a Army ROTC scholarship that includes a full ride and a larger living stipend than he even knows what to do with - and he's about to get even more money for studying a language that's in high demand by the government.
Also as mentioned above, a National Merit Scholarship can go far - I was only a Finalist and my (small liberal arts) school gave me a 1/4 discount on my tuition because of it.
posted by naoko at 8:43 AM on September 5, 2012

One brilliant thing a gifted kid could do is take all the AP tests there are.

That right there is 104 credit hours. Now, I'm sure that the gifted kid won't be able to do them all (some are in different languages, like Chinese) but if the kid is a good test taker, he/she can arrive at any good university before the first day of class with at least 60 hours of completed AP exams.

I read a story about a kid at UVA who completed an entire course with a double major in one year. That would save a couple of bucks.

How motivated are we talking about?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:24 AM on September 5, 2012

That right there is 104 credit hours.

Most elite schools don't award course credit for AP exams. Some state schools do, but in my experience any school that's private and liberal arts focused is probably not going to. I would be shocked to discover that Ivies awarded credit for that. All Ivy caliber students are taking a ton of APs, so if they awarded course credit for those there soon would not be any students spending four years at the school.

Also, if the OP's cousin does opt to go the competitive private school route, finishing quickly is usually not the point. The programs are scaled for four years. You do four years. Even if you place into more advanced coursework or test out of certain requirements (which is what AP exams are used for in these schools), you and your adviser will still work together to build a four year plan. Usually placing out of elementary level courses means more advanced work later, or time for things like study abroad or research or internships.

That said, if the kid is gifted, highly motivated and very focused on a specific future career, it wouldn't be a bad idea to apply to a reasonably OK smaller public school that does grant credit for AP exams, shoot through the bachelor's degree, and head straight for that career she knows she wants. This has a lot of potential pitfalls, through, and can potentially close a lot of doors down the road.

And even in that kind of scenario, I'm not sure that taking every AP exam is really worth doing unless the OP's cousin is crazy well-rounded and is likely to just blow the fuck through every exam without needing much study. The AP exams are actually pretty hard, even if you are a talented student. They're not really for students who are just "good at taking tests". They're not aptitude or general intelligence tests; it's a test of whether you know specific material. A lot of students literally spend the whole school year being taught to the test in special AP courses.
posted by Sara C. at 11:39 AM on September 5, 2012

Sara C. is totally right about APs, but if you do want to go that route I should add that McGill gave me 30 credits (that is, an entire year) for AP tests. I ended up deliberately dragging my feet a little so I could study abroad, but I could easily have finished in three years (in fact, taking longer turned out to be somewhat of a challenge). The mindset among Canadian university students, in my experience, was a lot less about "how am I going to squeeze every last drop out of the precious most wonderful years of my life in the hallowed quads of this campus", and a lot more "hey I take cool classes during the day and then I go hang out in the city like a normal grown-up". Getting the same degree in three years instead of four is perfectly reasonable and normal with that mindset...and I suspect this difference in attitudes is related to the fact that it's just a whole heck of a lot less expensive to go to college in Canada!
posted by ootandaboot at 12:50 PM on September 5, 2012

Most elite schools don't award course credit for AP exams. Some state schools do, but in my experience any school that's private and liberal arts focused is probably not going to. I would be shocked to discover that Ivies awarded credit for that.

Actually, Harvard does offer AP credit, and you can use it to graduate early. Yale does the same thing. I personally know several people who've graduated in 3 years (one did it in 2.5!), at Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, etc. I did it myself at a pretty fancy college, so I know it's possible.

Also, if the OP's cousin does opt to go the competitive private school route, finishing quickly is usually not the point. The programs are scaled for four years. You do four years.

What? Maybe it's different if you're studying something sequential, like math or science, but in my liberal arts major, there was no reason you would have to be there for 4 years. My parents made it pretty damn crystal clear to me that they were not spending tens of thousands of dollars on another year of college when I had enough AP credit to graduate early. In my experience, the people who chose to spend a 4th year in college even though they had enough AP credit to graduate a year early were just so filthy rich that the money didn't matter. But if money *does* matter, using AP credit to graduate early is a pretty good option.
posted by rhymeswithcheery at 4:22 PM on September 5, 2012

Is this something that has changed, maybe? Because when I was applying to colleges in '98-'99, not a single school out of the 6 I applied to aside from my local state college granted credit for AP exams (as opposed to using the exams for placement, which is a very different thing). I didn't apply to a ton of super elite schools, but I did apply to prestigious and competitive ones.

I know a ton of people around my age who went to Ivies, and they all seem to have spent four years in school. None of them graduated early, and they all definitely passed AP exams.

Another possibility -- are people maybe thinking about CLEP exams, which are a different thing which schools often do give credit for?

My experience after spending a year at a reasonably prestigious liberal arts college was that, despite being on target to graduate earlier, my adviser definitely encouraged me not to have graduating early as one of my goals. Instead I was given options of really cool opportunities that being a little ahead afforded me, like a semester abroad or this cool masterclass/internship program the school offered. Other friends who went to different liberal arts schools and were in the same situation were encouraged to take grad classes, honors theses, and the like. (I ended up transferring and losing that edge, but that's another story for another How Does College Work AskMe.)

I'm sure some people in the same situation don't follow that advice and instead opt to graduate early (and I don't think it's a horrible idea), but I don't know anyone who went to a prestigious school who did so. I don't think it's great advice to suggest applying to elite schools with the express intention of graduating as quickly as possible. Especially since the only elite schools worth going to are worth going to for the opportunities and connections, not because their classes are really any better than what you'll find at a state school.
posted by Sara C. at 6:16 PM on September 5, 2012

Actually, Harvard does offer AP credit, and you can use it to graduate early. Yale does the same thing. I personally know several people who've graduated in 3 years (one did it in 2.5!), at Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, etc. I did it myself at a pretty fancy college, so I know it's possible.

There's a difference, though, between offering AP credit and offering useful AP credit.

I had 70+ units when I started college. 120 were needed to graduate. How many units did I not have to take as a result? 8. I got out of two semesters of calculus with the BC calculus exam. Had I taken both AP English exams and gotten 5s (I didn't take AP English and my school didn't offer both courses anyway), that would have been another 8. Physics, biology and Latin (and maybe CS, I don't know) would have gotten me placement, but I never used it.

If I counted properly, the fewest courses I could have taken to graduate was 17, so 4 or 5 semesters. That assumes walking in the door knowing my major. It probably assumes being a math major, as there are relatively few lower division requirements--four courses, three of which I'd done in high school. (For comparison, biology had 9 lower division courses. I'd have skipped four or five.) But, most importantly, it assumes never taking a class that doesn't meet a requirement. Which is good if your sole goal is to get out as quickly as possible. Not so good for learning about things that interest you. (I took seven semesters of German. It ranks pretty highly on the list of best decisions I've made. Say goodbye to that--German 1 doesn't meet a requirement.) But, more importantly, from my perspective now, it means wiping out the graduate courses I took as an undergrad (precisely one of which counted for the major). They gave me an advantage getting into grad school, they gave me an advantage my first year of grad school, etc.

I maybe should have finished in seven semesters. I sort of mis-planned and sort of concluded taking a specific class and hoping to defeat a stupid university policy was worth it. On the other hand, a course I'd been waiting ages for was finally offered in my last semester and the other math course I took has stood me in good stead (it was esoteric, but came up this summer). 70+ units from AP exams would have saved me a semester. The only people I knew who got out in three years had transferrable credit from dual enrollment programs in high school, which they could use to kill breadth requirements and then have time to take advanced courses. I had an old housemate who took the get out as fast as possible option after seven semesters. I doubt a single unit of her AP credit was used in doing so. (Maybe the composition requirement.)
posted by hoyland at 6:41 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

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