Getting a 4-year degree in 3 years

This week, Money College presents two views of graduating college early by experts -- that is, students who took the three-year path through school. You can also read Money College blogger Sarah Dietze's companion piece about saving money by graduating early.

I've heard it time and time again: "College is the best time of your life. Why would you want to get out early?" Despite others' questioning my logic, graduating early has probably been one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Graduating early wasn't my original plan; I was just going to take it easy in college. Thanks to my Advanced Placement scores in biology, psychology, English literature and statistics, I was a sophomore by Christmas of my first year. Never pass up opportunities to take AP courses in high school. You'll either test out of a course or already be familiar with the material.

The financial incentive to graduate early was enough to convince me to put in the work and finish school before May, 2010. The average student at a public, four-year university pays about $7,000 per year for tuition before award packages. For those who choose private institutions, the yearly cost without any aid or scholarships averages $26,000. Add on room and board, and both college options have a hefty bill. I graduated just one semester early and saved myself approximately $10,000 in tuition. As a result, I am financially stable while searching for a career.

I didn't have any student loans, but if I did, they would have lit a fire under me to get out early. Depending on how much you're borrowing, cutting 25% of your total education costs can save thousands of dollars in interest.

Finishing in three years means school will be your full-time job. At my alma mater, Samford University, I took 16 credit hours or more for each of my first four semesters. If I spent an hour studying and preparing for every hour I spent in class, that's at least 32 hours a week focusing on academics. It was busy, but still left plenty of time for naps and late-night Krispy Kreme runs. Having a part-time job is possible, but you'll pay for it in your stress level. Because of other responsibilities, I took fewer classes for my last three semesters. I only earned 44 credit hours in that year and a half, but loved my time with my friends and activities.

So what about the extracurricular activities that create lasting memories in college? Graduating early means you have to let some of those go. Prioritize. What do you really love? I knew I wasn't going to be around for my full senior year, so I took on the role of editor-in-chief of my student newspaper my junior year. Figure out if you want to invest your precious free time in a Greek organization, student government, athletics, or something else.

The biggest perk of graduating early is that you can get a jump start on your future. One friend from high school snagged her degree in three years from Ball State University and started law school at Duke University while the rest of us were still in undergrad. Another friend finished her degree from Northwestern University early, and landed a great job within two months of graduation. I am interning with mental floss magazine and building my portfolio with freelance work.

While college was wonderful, I have my degree and can push forward to new experiences. I'm not going to let college be "the best years of my life" -- I believe those are still ahead of me. And I don't have any more tuition payments to hold me back.
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