In two weeks, Neil Durco will don a cap and gown for his college commencement, pose for family photos and accept his school's congratulations on a job well done.
And then days later, after the pomp subsides, the geography major at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania will head back to campus and actually finish his degree.
Though they'll be hard to recognize in the crowd, a sizable number of students who will cross commencement lawns at some colleges this spring aren't actually at the finish line. So long as they are close -- typically within a few months of completing their degree -- many schools permit them to bask in the glow of an achievement not quite earned.
While perhaps not the ideal, say experts, the practice reflects a modern-day reality. Be it a leftover internship, changes in a major or a last-minute F on an exam, a lot can happen on the path to a college graduation.
At Slippery Rock, 318 students, or a quarter of the roughly 1,280 participants in the May 10 ceremony, still have course work waiting for them in June. The school, which years ago discontinued its summer commencement, lets students walk in May if they are due to finish any outstanding credits by August.
The "diploma" they will receive crossing the stage in N. Kerr Thompson Stadium will, in fact, be an empty holder with a congratulatory note from the university's president, Robert M. Smith. The diploma itself comes afterward, once credits are verified by the university registrar.
Mr. Durco's education veered toward overtime when he put off taking a general chemistry course until his senior year, only to find it wasn't offered this spring. To make matters worse, the 22-year-old from Easton underestimated by one the required number of upper division courses.
Even so, he's not about to forgo the celebration, especially since his job plans out West mean he might not be living in Pennsylvania when Slippery Rock holds its next ceremony in December.
"It's kind of important for my folks to see me walk at graduation, so I guess that's a motivator," Mr. Durco said. "I've spent the last 16 years of my life in school. I wanted to get this done so I can move on."
As classmate Leah DiGiandomenico, 22, of Aliquippa sees it, things won't feel different just because her final 12 credits in safety and environmental management will be earned working for Alcoa in Arizona this summer, weeks after she marches. "I figure, no one in the audience will know I still have an internship to do," she said.
Nationwide, nearly 2.9 million students receive degrees each year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. It's unknown how many "walk" while still taking credits, but a practice once uncommon has become somewhat less so, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the Washington D.C.-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
"The collegian experience was much more rigid and much more neatly packaged decades ago than it is today," he said. The era of the freshman who was driven to campus in August and entirely finished by May of his or her senior year has succumbed to complex degree programs that do not fit neatly into four years, Mr. Nassirian said.
Students returning from study-abroad adventures can easily find themselves a few credits short with not enough time to recoup. Some of them can solve the problem simply by taking an online course back home over the summer. What's not so easily resolved is parental disappointment with being unable to formally mark a long-talked-about milestone.
"There are all kinds of family dynamics where the event becomes particularly meaningful," Mr. Nassirian said.
Just how many students decide they can't wait varies by campus but seems to correspond with the size of the gap between a school's seasonal ceremonies.
At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which has two commencements a year, 141 students or 15 percent of those so far planning to take part in the May 10 ceremony, are actually summer graduates. By contrast, Penn State has three ceremonies and reports no more than a handful of early walkers each semester.
No matter how many takers there are, colleges monitor closely who is eligible so they can maintain academic integrity.
At the University of Pittsburgh, students hoping to "walk" during today's 1 p.m. commencement in the Petersen Events Center must have applied last fall and be positioned to finish any outstanding credits by August, spokesman John Fedele said.
There is no cap on how many courses can be taken during that summer, though Pitt requires written permission to take more than 18 credits and generally discourages the practice, Mr. Fedele said. He said the university did not have an estimate of how many summer graduates will walk today.
Carnegie Mellon University, which will hold its commencement May 18, differentiates August graduates in its program by placing three asterisks beside their names.
At Penn State, summer graduates from some programs are allowed to attend commencement in gowns but can't cross the stage. Other programs let those students cross and be announced by name.
In case someone uses participation in commencement as proof of a degree, schools often stamp disclaimers on handouts. "Only the official diploma and transcript of the university are acceptable as evidence of degree attainment," reads Point Park University's commencement program.
Robert Morris University reminds ceremony-goers that its printed list of expected graduates does not reflect the outcome of final exams. Robert Morris and other schools are accustomed to adding and dropping names right up to -- and sometimes beyond -- printing deadlines.
In fact, Penn State spokesman Geoff Rushton said the university must be prepared to deal with cases in which a student fails a test needed to graduate after his or her parents already have begun traveling to State College for the ceremony.
For those who walk early, keeping a sense of humor can help when family or friends dish out well-intentioned jabs.
"They'll just say 'So, you're going to graduate before you actually graduate.' I say, 'Yeah, well, pretty much so,' " said John Grossman, 22, of Youngstown, Ohio, who will finish his studies in recreational therapy at Slippery Rock with a summer internship in Alabama.
Some schools including LaRoche College take a firm stand on the matter: No one walks without first finishing a degree.
"It avoids confusion," said Ken Service, the school's vice president for institutional relations. "It's not being in the program, it's not marching, it's receiving your degree. That's what actually counts."
But try telling that to Amanda Myers, 24, of Natrona Heights, a media arts major at Robert Morris, where the 58 summer graduates walking on May 10 represent 8 percent of total participants. Even though she is a course shy, the event in Sewall Center has huge meaning.
"A lot of these people I'm not going to see again," she said. " I definitely want to be able to say goodbye."
Bill Schackner can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1977. First Published April 27, 2008 4:00 AM