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."

2. CLEP tests
Students at schools that don't offer a wide variety of AP options are not out of luck, though, as there are credit-eligible alternatives many colleges accept. The problem is that most students don't know about them.

One such example, the College Level Examination Program, also administered by the College Board, allows students who have mastered certain subjects to test out of those subjects if they enroll in any of the 2,900 colleges and universities in the U.S. participating in the program.

"I 'CLEP-ped' out of 12 credits, which was meaningful for me in terms of time and money," Weiss remembers. "Preparing involved a lot of studying, but if you've already mastered the subject, why should you have to sit through the exams and ace them and waste the time you would otherwise spend on a more advanced class?"

Because sitting for every CLEP exam costs $77, students should do the research to make sure their intended college will accept the credits, but the payoff could save a semester of tuition all by itself.

3. Make a roadmap
A great money-saving strategy in any context, planning appropriately can be the best way to shave time and money off of a college education.

"Students who switch majors or transfer colleges halfway through their education tend to add a semester or two to the process, so don't be wishy-washy," Kantrowitz says. "Between high school and college, take an interest inventory to figure out what field might be best for you and maybe contact professionals in the field to get an idea of what the career looks like."

With a clearer idea of your intended major, you can look in detail at your college's prerequisites and when certain classes are offered to make a proper four-year plan.

"It's hard to ask a 17-year-old to plan their whole life, but they need to do it at some point," Kantrowitz says, "and it's always helpful to at least have a blueprint."

4. Don't stop testing
Once they arrive on campus, students should realize that opportunities are still available to them to test out of certain requirements if they can prove mastery, no matter where they got it. These opportunities vary from school to school, but generally don't involve spending money on a College Board-administered exam or on a semesterlong course.

"Some colleges have advanced-standings exams, which are equivalent to the final exam for a specific class given there," Kantrowitz says. "So if you pass that you can get credit for the class, if of course you have a lot of experience."

5. Take more classes
In the working world, full-time means a specific designation of a 38.5- or 40-hour workweek that is a baseline requirement for a promised salary and benefits. In college, though, it works a little bit differently. Full-time students pay a blanket tuition rate, but often for a range of credits the student has to commit to. Most often, a minimum of 12 credits are required for full-time status, while a maximum of 18 is usually imposed to avoid the super crammers fulfilling all their requirements in a year or two.

That means the cost per credit, a figure defined very specifically for part-time students, means very different things based on a full-timer's workload. It can be cheaper by a third for a full-time student to take 18 credits in a semester instead of 12, and thus be that much closer to the number required to graduate.

"Some colleges count 12 credits as a full-time student, but it may be impossible to graduate in four years at that rate," Kantrowitz says. "If you take one extra class per semester though, then by the time you are a senior you've taken six extra classes. That's more than one semester."

Weiss makes the same observation, but is more blunt about the trade-off.

"Advocating for 18 credits, I'm also saying that money overrides the college experience and that's not always the case," Weiss says. "It may be cheaper in the long run, but that means less skateboard and bong time."

6. Take Summer Credits at Home
Summer school and winter sessions are not even remote possibilities for those students who are in school only so their parents will pay for a backpacking or snowboarding trip during the breaks, but even for students who prefer to get a summer job between semesters, the chances are slim they will make enough to offset what they might save in a semester of tuition.

For the most money-conscious students, then, studying over break is the best money-saving option they have. Of course, there's a right way and a wrong way to do that. For Weiss at least, the right way starts with moving back home.

"You can take a few classes as a nonmatriculated student at a local institution where your parents live -- and that doesn't necessarily mean a community college, but sometimes a local university will allow you to commute for a couple of classes," Weiss says.

Of course, this is another situation where different schools treat such credits differently, so anyone considering this option must check the specifics before signing up.

"Colleges have articulation agreements to calculate equivalent credits," Kantrowitz says, "but you have to check whether each individual class will transfer and then you need to find out what kind of credit you will get -- core curriculum credit or general credit or credit toward prerequisities. If they transfer they will often be cheaper, and you can get some prerequisites out of the way for a lot less."

7. Get a Second Degree
It may sound strange, but sometimes the best way to save on your education is to pay it forward -- if you're considering continuing your education beyond a university degree, of course.

"Your real purpose in going to school is to get a degree and maximize the value of your education, so rather than graduate early, stay the whole time and get a second degree," Kantrowitz suggests. "It can be easier to get two degrees than to graduate earlier, because the core graduation requirements are shared, and if you happen to be lucky enough that your majors are interrelated, you could do it just by adding a few classes."

Keep in mind, though, you should make sure your efforts don't end up hurting you in other ways.

"Certain types of financial aid are only available to people who haven't obtained a degree yet, so if you're going to go for more than one, you need to make sure you don't finish the requirements for both until the last semester," Kantrowitz says.

-- Written by Greg Emerson in New York

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Greg Emerson.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to @emersongreg.

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