When it's time to start talking about college, it's never long before the conversation turns to money. Many parents start saving for college before their children are even born, as it can represent a significant expense. And when it's time to actually attend school, incoming students often try to save money any way they can — such as through grants and scholarships, choosing the right loans, or even graduating from school early.
After I received all of my college acceptance letters, I ultimately decided that New York University made the most sense for me. It afforded great academic opportunities and was located close to my hometown. That said, it was ranked as one of the most expensive universities in the country. After finalizing my plans, I did some calculating and figured out that, in order to cut costs, I could graduate from college in just three years. The total price tag would still be high, but saving a year's worth of expenses would make a major difference.
Based on my own experience, here are some tactics you can take to shave a semester or a year (and the subsequent costs) off of college:
Start Earning Credits in High School
In high schools across the country, students are afforded the opportunity to earn credits that may be transferrable to college. As part of programs such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and the College Level Examination Program, high school students are able to study college-level material across a variety of disciplines before they ever set foot on a campus. My high school offered a variety of AP classes, as well as a Calculus class that was endorsed by Syracuse University. Just based on what I earned in high school, I was able to start college with almost a full year's worth of credits.
It's important to mention that many schools place limitations on what credits they'll accept from these programs, and some won't accept any at all. If you're seriously considering early graduation, make it a priority to investigate what sort of credits the schools to which you've been accepted take, and under what circumstances.
Make a Plan Before You Start
Of course, a college career is more about just earning credits — it's about learning the skills that will prepare you for whatever it is you decide to do in life. Though I wasn't sure what kind of job I wanted to get after school, I knew that I wanted it to heavily involve writing. For that reason, even before I picked out a school, I knew I was going to be an English major.
For many, college is a time of discovering what you want to study — going in with an open mind and maybe even switching majors if you find you want to take a different path. That's fine, but if you do want to graduate early, you may have to stick to your original plan at all costs. Colleges require students to put a certain number of credits or classes toward a discipline in order to make it a major, and if you're graduating early, there won't be much wiggle room.
If this sounds like a lot of pressure to put on yourself before you even start college, don't worry. Your school will have an academic advisor who will be able to talk to you about your plans, help you weigh your options, and ultimately pick the right path.
Enroll in Summer Classes
Taking summer classes allows students to compress a full semester's worth of study into a shorter time frame. After my freshman year of college, I knew that I needed an additional eight credits to be on pace to graduate a year early. I took two classes during the summer before my sophomore year in order to meet my time frame.
Summer classes offer many opportunities to save money. Even if your school has a flat price per credit that doesn't change over the summer, the time you'll cut off your college career can lead to major savings in terms of room and board. Taking as many credits as possible during each regular semester can have the same effect.
It's also worth checking to see if your college accepts transfer credits from other schools. If they do, you may be able to save even more money by taking summer classes at a community college. If you're an out-of-state student, you may be able to go home for the summer and still take classes that count toward your degree.
You Can Do It — But Should You?
Graduating from college early can be a great way to get a head start on graduate school. If you're planning on going into a lengthier program (like if you're getting your Ph.D., J.D., or M.D.), you can start a year sooner. Similarly, you can work on your master's degree while your friends are finishing up their bachelor's degrees.
At the same time, truncating your experience means that you have less time to take advantage of the extracurricular opportunities that college affords. For careers in business, publishing, and social sciences, for instance, what you do outside the classroom may prove just as important as what you do inside it. If you take a full course load and go to class over the summer, you may not have time to get an internship — something I never did, but which many people consider invaluable for professional experience and building their career network.
The year I cut off college meant I saved about $40,000, so I stand by my decision. However, that still meant that I was responsible for nearly six figures worth of expenses. To handle what's not covered by early graduation, it's important to find the right student lender.
You have to pick the path that's best for you — whatever that looks like. Make sure that you weigh all your options and think about what you want from the next four years and beyond before making your decision.
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