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Keep College Costs Low: Graduate in Three Years

Some students are opting for a three-year college degree to save money.

Kathryn Knight Randolph

January 19, 2021

Who said that graduating college in four years should be the norm? Students are completing degrees in three years to save time -- and money.
Keep College Costs Low: Graduate in Three Years
You may have heard all of the tried and true ways to save money on college costs: Open a 529 Savings Account as soon as you can. Apply for financial aid by completing the FASFA. Never borrow more in student loan dollars than your expected annual salary after graduation. But have you heard this one? Try to graduate in three years. When you consider that most college graduate programs require at least 120 credits, to graduate in three years may seem impossible. However, the movement is gaining momentum as it’s a great way to pay less for a degree.

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In fact, there are some colleges that are even setting students up to graduate within three years through specific programming. That’s worth considering if you’re looking to save money on college tuition. And if a specific three-year degree at your college doesn’t suit your needs, you can always devise a plan to graduate early on your own.

Colleges with Three-Year Degree Programs

Three-year college degree programs are not necessarily a new concept. As of 2018, there were 32+ institutions that offered a more aggressive timeline to graduation, according to a study from Progressive Policy Institute. However, critics of the programs were quick to say that they weren’t performing well, and the number of students signing on to graduate in three years proved that.

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The problem was that so many of these institutions were trying to cram four years of study into just three, points out Progressive Policy Institute. Typically, students that want to graduate within three years have to compromise on getting internship and work experience, meaning every semester and summer before graduation are spent exclusively in the classroom. Other colleges have come up with a solution, though – a specially designed three-year degree program. U.S. News reports on Paul Quinn College, a historically Black college, that has devised a three-year degree that includes coursework, internships, and work experience. PQC students incorporate internships and work into their semester and summer coursework in order to gain real-world experience and networking opportunities. Time spent in the workplace counts as credit toward a degree. By the end of what they call they Urban Scholars Program, students have a bachelor’s degree and relevant work experience to help them land their first job after college.

How You Can Graduate in Three Years

If pursuing a college degree in three years is enticing to you, there is a way to do it on your own. You don’t necessarily need a tailored three-year degree program in order to accomplish this goal. However, you do need to be highly motivated. First, start your college experience in high school. Take courses that will earn you college credit. Many high schools with a college in town will offer course credit for advanced high school coursework. The caveat is that you have to attend college at that local institution in order for it to transfer. If you’re looking to move away from home, your best bet is Advanced Placement (AP) courses. For AP courses to count towards college credit, you must pass the course and achieve a certain score on the AP exam given in May. You also have to attend a college that accepts AP courses as college credits. A list of those schools can be found on the College Board website. Another option is summer coursework. While summers off from attending classes, writing research papers, and taking exams, is nice – it’s not necessary. You could be utilizing that time to get ahead. Many colleges offer summer classes, from general education courses to credits that count toward your major or minor. It should be said, though, that summers are also a great time to get work experience, which is vital to your resume after college. If you do opt to work over the summer, try to find an opportunity through your school, and discuss the idea to allow for your summer job to count as college credit. Colleges are becoming increasingly open to the idea of students creating their own curriculum and using real-world experience to do so.

What Happens When It Takes Longer to Graduate?

What’s more common than a three-year program and harmful for your wallet? Taking five to six years to complete a bachelor’s degree. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), roughly 30% of college students fall into this timeline. These students end up paying more for their college education than they initially intended and fall into greater student loan debt as a result. So how can you avoid going down this path and paying more for college? The answer is three-fold: set goals, get help, and stay focused. Set goals. Before you even begin attending college – or even as you’re searching for a college – set realistic goals for yourself. Use the first two years to explore the breadth of your college’s academic offerings while meeting your general education course requirements. Try to declare a major by the end of your sophomore year – or within the timeline designated by your university. From there, plan out the rest of your semesters by how many credits you need to take toward your major and minor degrees. Get help. This is paramount, especially as you plan for your junior and senior years. Get an advisor during your freshman year, and meet regularly with them. This individual will help keep you on track to graduate by mapping out your general ed, major, and minor degree requirements. They’ll also let you know if you have room to squeeze in a few classes that simply sound interesting to you. Stay focused. We know – college coursework and schedules are intense. However, if you want to graduate within four years (or even a semester early), you need to keep your grades up and take the necessary credit requirements each semester. Failing classes will require you to either repeat them or take another course in its place. Also, opting to take three classes instead of four – just for a little break – can put you behind schedule. You can accomplish so much in your three or four years in college: general education courses, pursuing a major, internship experiences, and even studying abroad. To do so, you must stay motivated – or stay hungry, as Steve Jobs put it – and you'll save money in the long run.

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