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More students at Johns Hopkins University are taking advantage of the institution’s open-ended core requirements to graduate a semester early -- a development that defies the trend seen in research universities across the country.

The number of December graduates at Hopkins has almost doubled in the past two years, from 78 in 2010 to 153 last year. That means 10 percent of Hopkins students now graduate early. As the economy recovers, students spy an opportunity to beat their classmates out of the gate for the most lucrative job opportunities -- while also saving up to tens of thousands of dollars in tuition money.

Alexa Mechanic’s decision to graduate early may drive the number of early graduates even higher. Through a combination of 10 Advanced Placement credits, January intersession courses and independent studies, the junior English and writing major said she is on track to graduate from Hopkins this December.

“As college students, we’re all going to be in a lot of debt after going to college -- wherever you go,” Mechanic said. “Instead of paying another $30,000 for an extra semester and take a couple of random classes, I decided to leave a semester early.”

In Mechanic’s case, “leave” means staying put. Though she will no longer be enrolled as a student come January 2014, she said she hopes to keep her internship with the Hopkins admissions office. That way, she will keep herself occupied while scouting for job openings in Baltimore and mulling a potential graduate school application.

Hopkins’ numbers appear to be an outlier. An inquiry into research universities across the country showed accelerated graduation is not a national trend, with some institutions only reporting a handful of students finishing their requirements before standardized time.

“Most Columbia undergraduates stay for eight terms,” said Kathryn Yatrakis, dean of academic affairs at Columbia University. “While we do see students taking more points than in the past, few do so with the goal of graduating early.”

Officials at  Brown and Stanford Universities and Dartmouth College reported observing similar numbers.

Steven David, vice dean for undergraduate education at Hopkins, noted that while most students who have the opportunity to graduate early choose not to do so, the financial aspect is too hard to turn down for some. 

"We do have a certain sympathy in these hard economic times," David said. "I can hope we can increase our financial aid packages so that students are not faced with the choice of leaving the school they love."

The savings in tuition money means Hopkins' finances take a hit, but more importantly, David said the trend "hurts the atmosphere in the university."

"I don’t like to see college reduced to a series of check marks," he added.

David said the university is eager to give students more reasons not to graduate early, such as allowing them to begin working on master's degrees within their departments.

Yatrakis touted Columbia’s rigorous core curriculum, which includes foreign language, science and even physical education requirements, as one of the main reasons why most students choose to graduate on time. Hopkins, in comparison, requires each major to set its definition of a core curriculum for its students to satisfy, which normally includes a language and writing requirement and a number of courses distributed between engineering, humanistic studies, natural science, quantitative studies and social or behavioral sciences.

“Beyond that, you're free to concentrate on what you love, or to explore more broadly,” the Hopkins website explains.

“It’s very lax,” said Mechanic, who was able to complete about half of her distribution requirements through her psychology minor, bringing her closer to an early graduation in December. She said, “If I can save the money and I’m done with my requirements, I don’t see a point in paying for another semester.”

Allie Grasgreen contributed to this report.

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