How to Save 25% on Your Total College Costs

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Recent high school grads, what if I told you that you could save 25 percent on your college costs? Not only that, but in addition to saving all that money, you could earn some, too -- a full year's worth of salary, in fact. It's easy: Just finish college in three years.

Sounds crazy, right? College is supposed to be fun. Who would trade one of the best years of their life for more studying? Well, I did, and it was one of the best financial decisions I made. With college costs on the rise, I think more students should consider it.

Think about it. If you're starting college this fall, you're looking at an average ticket price of $23,410 a year for a public school and an astounding $46,272 at a private school. Yes, I know many students don't pay full freight, but even at the average "net" cost, you're looking at nearly $13,000 a year for public college and more than $23,000 a year for a private institution.

I'm not the only one who thinks early graduation is a good strategy for saving money. Johns Hopkins University Professor Paul Weinstein is one of many in the education field advocating for a three-year degree. As he recently said in an NPR interview: "The fact is that four-year degrees are simply a matter of tradition. We designed four-year degrees because high schools are four-year degrees. But many schools even in the U.S. at one time offered three-year degrees." He adds that most European university programs are three years, including those at the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

It's not the right option for every student, of course, but for those who are interested in graduating a year early, here are a few strategies to consider.

AP Courses: Thanks to my high school's extensive Advanced Placement program, which allows high schoolers to take college-level classes, I started my freshman year at Swarthmore College with a full semester's worth of course credits.

It's not enough to do well in an AP course: Students must also take the AP exam and get a score of 3 or higher to receive credit. And not all schools accept AP test scores for credit, so those planning to go this route must be sure their chosen college does. Some schools also accept international baccalaureate courses and dual-enrollment classes for credit.

Summer School: Starting college with a semester of credit gave me a great head start, but I still had to make up another semester's worth of courses. I needed my summers to work, so full-time school wasn't a viable option. But I was able to squeeze in a summer French class at the University of Pennsylvania, which had a credit transfer program with my college. This is key -- schools don't always accept one another's courses toward students' degree requirements, so it's essential to confirm that any courses taken elsewhere will transfer.

Extra Classes: This is how I made up the remaining credits, and it's the aspect of the plan that causes most people to write off early graduation as something only geniuses can do (and I assure you, I'm not a genius!). I was used to juggling six or seven high school courses, so taking just four at a time like most of my peers wasn't unusually challenging. Once I knew I could handle that workload, I added one additional course per semester, generally an elective or other "lighter" class to balance out my more demanding political science and philosophy seminars.

Accelerated Degrees: Weinstein advocates that colleges actually overhaul their requirements so that students can more easily finish early. Formal three-year degree programs have been slow to catch on despite support from several states, but they do exist. Bates College and Wesleyan University are among the more than 20 private colleges that offer them. Others, like American University's Global Scholars program, offer combined bachelor's and master's degrees that let students graduate with a master's in four years.

Make the Most of That Extra Year

What can you do with the year you'll save? You could start working a year early, and with less debt, you might be able to afford to take a lower-paying job in a field you love. That's what I did, turning down lucrative paralegal and consulting jobs to intern at a political magazine. You could also get a head start on graduate school.

Even better, many students could use that extra year before starting school rather than after graduation. A recent Washington Post article makes the argument that "the best investment you can make in your kid's college education might be to delay that education." Veteran college admissions consultant Parke Muth says this so-called "gap year" allows kids to mature enough to get the full benefit of their college education.

If you're an overachiever, knowing you could finish college in three years might give you more confidence that you can take a year off without falling behind your peers. That year can be spent working, volunteering or traveling. The goal is simply to take a break from the academic hamster wheel, mature a little and arrive at college ready and focused.

Depending on your situation, you can either apply on time for college admissions and then defer enrollment (Muth recommends this path), or wait and apply during your gap year. Many students opt for the first option and the certainty of knowing where they'll be matriculating. A few colleges, including Princeton, Tufts and the University of North Carolina, even offer scholarships to help fund a gap year.

But don't rule out waiting -- an interesting gap-year experience might just set you apart from the herd and win you admission to an otherwise "reach" school.

Robyn Gearey is a Motley Fool contributor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
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