The overwhelming majority of high school students in the United States take four years to graduate and earn their high school diplomas, though students encountering serious difficulties in their courses or who have missed long stretches of class time will often require a fifth year to complete their high school graduation requirements. That this happens is well known, and the possibility of being held back a year is often used to scare students into improving their performance or behavior.

However, many parents and students are unaware that graduating a semester early from high school or even graduating a full year early is possible. Students in high school graduate early every year, though it isn't as easy as early graduation from college. In Missouri in particular, it requires planning and a significant amount of additional work on the part of the student.

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Why Graduate Early?

There are any number of reasons why a student may wish to graduate from high school early. While a portion of early high school graduates seek to escape stifling or unsatisfying school environments as soon as possible, other students graduate early in order to achieve specific goals or to get a head start on the next phase of their lives. Early graduation allows students to enter the workforce early (particularly when they already have job opportunities lined up from internships and part-time work), participate in extended travel-study programs or take courses at community colleges or other institutions to prepare for more traditional undergraduate college work or to enter a trade school a semester early.

While early graduation isn't ideal for every high school student, particularly driven or accomplished students will use the process as a way to move forward at their accelerated pace. However, no high school student can graduate early without advance approval, which can be difficult to get depending on each student's situation.

Logistics and Administrative Approval

While students who have reached a certain age (16 to 18, depending on the state of residence) can opt to drop out of high school on their own through a relatively simple process, early high school graduation can be exponentially more complicated, and in certain schools or county school systems, it may require approval from counselors, principals or other school or school-adjacent staff.

High school students who wish to graduate early may only do so upon completion of all their graduation requirements. While the specifics will vary based on state and county, these requirements outline a number of credits each student needs to have earned in a variety of subjects. Generally, students will need to have completed a certain number of credits in math, the sciences, social studies and English in addition to a list of practical arts courses or critical electives like health and personal finance. These requirements may or may not line up with the expectations of college admissions boards and almost always are designed with a traditional four-year academic career in mind.

As a result, students seeking early graduation will usually need to work alongside their schools in advance to plot out an accelerated graduation plan or enter an established program in order to complete all of their graduation credits ahead of time. These programs will often involve taking additional courses online, at night or during the summer or will replace nonessential elective courses in a student's daily or weekly schedule with more traditional math, science or social studies classes. Students will almost always need to declare their intent to enter these programs at least a year in advance, and some schools may require minimum grade-point averages for students to be considered for these programs. The specifics will depend on the student's school and school system, each of which may have its own procedures and requirements.

Missouri High School Graduation Requirements

In the state of Missouri, high school graduation requirements are set by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. All high school students graduating after the year 2010 must earn a total of 24 credit units across a variety of subjects in however much time it takes to accomplish the task. These include four credits in the communicative arts; three credits each in social studies, math and the sciences; one credit each of fine art, practical art and physical education; and then a half credit each of health and personal finance in addition to seven elective credits. Students generally earn a total of three credits per semester, with each semester's worth of coursework equaling a half credit, though this may vary based on county requirements.

Students who wish to graduate high school early will need to earn all 24 of these academic credits before their expected graduation semester, which may or may not be feasible. A list of currently earned credits should be included on a student's academic report or report card or should be available from the school counseling office upon request. Students and parents should speak with their academic counselors and inquire about partnership programs with local community colleges, which may enable students to take undergraduate-level courses without needing to manage the complex logistics of early graduation.

About the Author

Blake Flournoy is a writer, reporter, and researcher based out of Baltimore, MD. Working independently and alongside professors at Goucher College, they have produced and taught a number of educational programs and workshops for high school and college students in the Baltimore area, finding new ways to connect students to biology, psychology, and statistics. They have never seen Seinfeld and are deathly scared of wasps.