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Study Less, Save More: Your Guide to Graduating Early

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Education is one of the few examples of when you spend money based almost entirely on the expectation of what it will one day get you. It's really impossible to "try before you buy" in education, and while you know what you get when you buy a Louis Vuitton handbag or a Porsche 911 Turbo, you only know what your education got you when it's too late.

College tuition in the U.S. has increased by an average annual rate of 5.6% over the general rate of inflation during the past 10 years, and while financial aid has tried to keep pace, thrifty students are being forced to cut corners like everyone else.

Graduating in four years may be hard and expensive, but there are ways to shave time and money off your education.

"It's more important to graduate than to graduate from a particular school," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org. "Sometimes students want to go to the 'best' schools and maybe those aren't the ones with the best financial aid possibilities, so what we have is rising debt at graduation. But incomes of college grads has not risen as fast as tuition."

No matter where a person goes to college, though, there are almost always opportunities to shave time -- and money -- off of their education. Our education experts share a few tactics to follow before matriculation and once in school to ease the financial burden after graduation. Your education begins now:

1. AP exams
Saving on that last semester of college, for many students, starts in high school -- sometimes as early as 10th grade. High schools in the U.S., public and private, generally offer whatever "advanced placement" courses they have the faculty for, with curricula geared toward preparing for the College Board's AP exams.

The tests, which cover 31 subjects, are the most direct way to earn college credit before even setting foot on campus, Kantrowitz says, even if every school makes its own decisions about how much credit to award for particular scores (typically scores of three or more on a scale of five). Each exam costs $87, though, so it's important to only take tests you are confident you'll do well on.

"It's limited by the subjects your school offers, of course," Kantrowitz says, "but you don't want to take so many that your performance on the tests isn't very good. So instead of taking a bunch as a senior you can take some as a junior, and in most cases the scores carry over indefinitely."

Mitchell Weiss, author of Life Happens: A Practical Guide to Personal Finance from College to Career and 35-year veteran of the financial services industry, teaches financial literacy at the University of Hartford and recommends that students get as much as they can out of their AP exams.

"I know from my experience with my son that you can appeal, and you should," Weiss says. "Everything can be negotiated, so you can really press to get more credits for those AP scores."

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