Graduating college in December has its perks for families who get a reprieve from the parking nightmares and hours-long ceremonies of spring commencement.
Plus, the thinking goes, early graduates also get a leg up on the job market.
Less than one month after walking the stage at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Michelle Arrington starts as a trauma nurse at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. In fact, most of the 50 students in her nursing cohort have jobs lined up.
“It’s sort of like the off season for applying for jobs,” she said. “You’re not competing with as many people.”
The image of throngs of college graduates being handed diplomas in the spring dates back for generations. But in truth, the task of completing college has never conformed to pat schedules. Students change majors, transfer schools, take time off or pick up their studies again midcareer.
Arrington, for example, came to UMSL with an early acceptance into the nursing program and college credits earned from advanced high school classes. She is one of 1,050 candidates for graduation from UMSL this month. The school’s winter ceremony is next week.
The timing worked out well for her in landing a job. Higher education officials often cite more favorable job prospects as a benefit of midyear graduation.
Yet there appears to be no formal research on whether December graduates actually do get a head start on the job search.
A leader at the National Association of Colleges and Employers said he has yet to see any data that show an edge for winter graduates versus the more traditional college exodus in spring.
The unknown comes from the way colleges report outcome data, which is in one lump sum broken down only by the graduation year, according to Ed Koc, the association’s director of research.
Even so, many students graduating this time of year see advantages beyond the career search. Some, in fact, say they won’t even try to land a job right away, choosing to spend the next several months taking a break or traveling before hunkering down for full-time employment.
UMSL Chancellor Tom George is sure that the trend of graduating in December is only going to gain more traction because students “need the flexibility.”
“The so-called nontraditional student is becoming the traditional,” he said. “When I went to college in 1963, you went in as a freshman, you stayed there for four years and you left — that’s what you did.”
Now, December graduation at UMSL has soared in popularity, with about two-thirds as many students graduating this month as in May.
“The lifestyles now, particularly with our students, is fluid. It makes more sense to do things as quickly as you can when the opportunity is there.”
Toasts and confetti cannons
There is a downside to the December graduation. Some schools tone down the pomp and circumstance, encouraging students to come back in May and participate in the larger ceremony. Budgets play a factor for schools like UMSL, which once also had an August graduation ceremony before having to cut back.
Webster University hosts a “December Toast.”
Meanwhile, Friday afternoon, St. Louis University students got the full experience in Chaifetz Arena, complete with confetti cannons.
Because May’s commencement is about four times as big as December’s, those graduates’ degrees are conferred in groups.
In December, graduates names are read as they walk across the stage while their supporters hoot and holler.
The graduation speaker, assistant chemistry professor Paul Bracher, made light of how much simpler the midyear ceremony feels. He even jokingly welcomed students to invite extended relatives to the remaining open seats, of which there were many.
Washington University marked its December graduation last week at Graham Chapel, a far more intimate venue than the Brookings Quadrangle where thousands will be handed diplomas in May.
The chapel wasn’t large enough to accommodate family members and friends who gathered last week, hundreds of whom watched their graduate walk the stage via a live-stream in a theater several hundred yards away.
The chapel was mostly filled with soon-to-be graduates — the ceremony was two weeks before the end of the semester — and proud parents who made it in time to snag seats.
Travel instead of tuition
For Arpitha Hayes and her group of friends, the December ceremony at Washington University was nice, but they’ll be back for the big event in May.
Hayes, who is graduating with a bachelor’s in business administration, already has a job lined up after graduation in product management at Capital One, though she won’t start until August 2017.
“It’s a weird concept, and a lot of my friends don’t get it,” she said of her upcoming break. “I realized that there’s a lot I want to do and ways I want to grow before I start into a more structured lifestyle at work.”
Hayes, a Boston area native, is using the next eight months to visit family in India and possibly hike Machu Picchu with friends, among other travel plans.
Saving money was a big factor in graduating early, she said.
“It’s worth it to spend the money on travel when you’ve got a job lined up and know that you’re not going to have the time soon,” she said.
Cost saving was a big motivator to graduate early for fellow Washington University student Rachael Pulick, a Chicago area native.
Pulick is using some of her time to travel and volunteer in South Africa but will spend most of her so-called break studying for the GMAT, an entrance exam for a future master’s degree in business.
“It’s time to recoup from 16 years of school before I launch into the real world,” she said.