Skip a year of college, save nearly 20%

This week, Money College presents two views of graduating college early by experts--that is, students who took the three-year path through school. Click on the link to read Money College blogger Emily Leithauser's companion piece on getting a 4-year-degree in 3 years.

Like baked beans for breakfast and bog snorkeling, three-year degrees may represent the norm in the U.K., but seem utterly foreign to U.S. students. Either weathering the economic storm or simply escaping reality, 38.5% of U.S. undergraduates take more than four years to graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Despite late nights and weekends spent studying (I've closed down the library more times than I'd like to admit), I'm proud to count myself among the 4.2% of U.S. students graduating in three years rather than four. While I'm occasionally convinced that my time would have been better spent studying abroad, I'm looking forward to enjoying a year's worth of extra income and reduced tuition spending.

Theoretically, early grads save an even 25% by skipping their senior year. Yet administrators at Franklin & Marshall College estimated the savings at closer to 19%. Still, that's a considerable amount -- though graduating early is rarely so cut-and-dry.

I understand that graduating a year ahead of schedule doesn't guarantee an accelerated career path and doesn't earn more than a brief "congratulations" from most interviewers. A highly personal decision, deciding to jump into the professional world ahead of schedule requires a bit of research and a lot of faith in your ability to plan both your undergraduate and professional life.

Decisiveness plays a key role for current students exploring a condensed college stay. Select your course of action and declare your major early. You don't have to be the type who has their double majors and triple minors mapped out before setting foot on campus, but communicate your intentions to the university by the end of your first year -- even if not required until later. Remember, your freshman year becomes your new sophomore year in short order.

You'll likely become a permanent fixture in your dean's or academic advisement office as a result. Befriend your adviser, seek advice and review transcripts often. You don't want three years of hard work to disappear because of a registrar snafu, a common consequence of working too fast.

Prospective students interested in an abridged experience should seek a fast track program that doesn't require them to take summer classes or plot out courses years in advance. Small liberal arts schools, including Bates, Manchester and Hartwick Colleges, offer accelerated programs for selected majors. Hartwick offers 23 accelerated BAs, while Chatham University in Pittsburgh allows interior architecture students to graduate a year early without an increased course load.

Dr. Anne Skleder, Dean of Chatham's Undergraduate College, says student response for the abbreviated program has been positive: "The overwhelming majority [of students] have found that they're committed to doing it and know they're going to have to work's about the value in the long term benefit."

Not all of the above adds up financially. Choosing a college is an emotionally-charged decision, and deciding when to leave is equally personal. A forward-thinking person who's practically allergic to debt, I'm eager to tackle the workforce, recession or not. If you choose to linger and live in the moment, enjoy every bit of it -- just don't turn the collegiate experience itself into so much of a career that you forget to enjoy yourself. Serious work, after all, deserves a balance of serious play.
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