Kate Stephens had little success getting financial aid or scholarships for college and found that part-time work barely made a dent in her tuition bills. So, she decided to do something different: she completed her college degree from Northwest University near Seattle in just two years, graduating in 2007. She earned more than 60 credits through dual enrollment, exams for credit, intersession abroad and other opportunities and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in business administration when she was just 20 years old.
Finishing school in two years allowed Stephens to enter the real world with no student loan debt. The typical 2020 college student graduated with $30,000 in student loans.1
“My parents, who are now in their 50s, still have student loans,” Stephens said in an interview. They emphasized to her from a young age the importance of earning an education without going into debt.
Stephens shares her tips in her book, College, Quicker: 24 Practical Ways to Save Money and Get Your Degree Faster . Here are a few of those tips, along with suggestions from other experts on graduating early.
1. Take dual enrollment courses
Dual enrollment courses let high schoolers, typically 11th and 12th graders, simultaneously earn high school and college credit.
“Depending on your area, your tuition and even your books for these classes might be entirely free,
Stephens said. “That means by the time you graduate, you’ll not only have a high school diploma, but also a handful of college credits or an associate’s degree as well. And all without possibly spending a dime.” Stephens said she earned 6.67 credits this way.
Kylie Patterson, director of public relations at Scorpion, an internet marketing company, graduated from UCLA in three years. She also used the dual enrollment strategy and earned credit for English, math, science, and foreign language courses at her local community college.
The caveat is that your high school may not agree to it, and the college you ultimately choose may not honor the credits you have earned.
“Anything that doesn’t directly correlate will end up being an elective credit, so not a total waste, but not all that helpful, either,” Patterson said in an interview. “As much fun as sign language may be, it will give you a second language credit in high school, but not a foreign language credit in college. Huge mistake!”
Stephens said she waited to earn most of her credits until after high school, but for the ones she took before she knew what university she would attend or what degree she would pursue, she stuck to basic general education classes in English, math, science and other subjects that would be likely to transfer.
2. Attend an early college charter high school
“Many communities are creating high schools that work directly with community colleges to accelerate learning,” said Monique Anair, an assistant professor at Santa Fe Community College who specializes in accelerated education, in an interview. “At the Masters Program Early College Charter High School in Santa Fe, New Mexico , we have recent graduates that received their high school diploma and their two-year degree at the same time. By the time they were 20, they graduated with their bachelor’s degree, and many immediately enter into master’s programs, graduating with top honors at the age of 22.”
3. Earn credit by exam
You can potentially earn three to 12 credits just by showing up at a testing center and taking an exam in a wide variety of subjects for a small fee, Stephens said. She earned 30 credits from CLEP exams.
4. Skip summer vacation
Between school years, attend summer school classes at your community college, Patterson said. “It’s cheaper than a state school or university and you can save even more money by living at home while you take them.” She took basic classes that would be likely to transfer, such as English, Spanish, and statistics.
“Always check in with your community college counselors and your university counselors to get confirmation on both sides that the credits will transfer,” Patterson said, and get approval in writing to protect yourself if anyone challenges the credits down the line. (Related: College admissions counselors: Weighing the price)
Another option for earning college credit over the summer is a pre-college program. Stephens said she earned seven credits by attending such a program at Washington University in St. Louis, where she took classes alongside traditional college students.
5. Earn credits online
Patterson said that students without a viable community college option may be able to take online courses from other colleges.
“Most colleges will not allow concurrent enrollment — taking classes at two institutions at the same time — so be sure to avoid overlap,” she said. Again, make sure your school will let you transfer the credits. She said she had a harder time transferring the credits she earned online from a well-ranked nationally accredited university than the ones she earned at her local community college.
6. Maximize your course load
“If you are fine graduating in four-plus years, by all means take the minimum required to be a full-time student. If you really want to shave a year off, though, you have to be willing to push yourself to take as many as you can fit in your schedule while maintaining your sanity,” Patterson said.
Stephens recommends enrolling in the maximum number of credits your school will allow each semester without charging you extra. “For example, if your school charges the same tuition rate for a range of credits, such as 12 to 18 credits, register for 18. It’s as though you’re getting an extra six credits free,” she said.
7. Choose your major early and carefully
Changing majors can set students back when it comes to graduating early or even on time. Double majors and minors can also lengthen the time it takes to complete a degree.
“Select just one major and stick with it,” Stephens said. “After careful consideration, declare your major and remain in the program until graduation.”
Views differ on how much your college major matters. You cannot major in political science and expect to land a job after college as a mechanical engineer. But you can probably major in political science and get an entry-level job at a newspaper even if you do not have a journalism degree. Political science coursework teaches many of the critical thinking and writing skills required to be a good reporter. (Related: Is college debt worth it?)
Patterson managed to graduate in three years despite changing majors.
“I started out undecided, started going the pre-med route, and then ultimately majored in sociology,” she said. “Had I started out knowing exactly what I wanted to do, I’m confident I could have graduated even faster.”
8. Enroll in an accelerated degree program
In theory, many students could complete their undergraduate degrees early by simply taking an extra course each semester and two courses during each summer semester, said Timothy G. Wiedman, retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska.
“However, if certain required courses must be taken in sequence, or if required courses are not offered every year, or if required courses are only offered at times that conflict with one another, or if the limited sections of required courses max out so quickly that many students can’t get a seat, or if few required courses are offered during the summer, that theory may not live up to reality,” he said in an interview.
That’s why it can be a good idea to look for degree programs that are designed to be completed in three years. Another option is to look for degree programs that give designated three-year students priority in registration and class selection.
But keep in mind these programs can be very demanding and exhausting, Wiedman cautioned.
9. Go to college in the United Kingdom
An extreme but intriguing option is to attend a U.K. university. Independent college counselor Kristen Moon, founder of MoonPrep.com, says she is seeing more and more American students pursuing degrees at U.K. universities because they are typically less expensive and allow students to graduate in less time. Further, U.S. federal financial aid can often be applied toward attending a U.K. university, and American students are eligible for U.K. scholarships and financial aid .
“U.K. schools do not require students to take all those ‘fluff’ classes,” Moon said in an interview. In contrast to American universities, which typically have numerous general education requirements, U.K. universities encourage students to dive right into their major. The result is that most U.K. university students earn a bachelor’s degree in three years, and it is possible to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s in four years, she explained.
The bottom line
With the possible exception of accelerated degree programs, even the best-laid plans to graduate early won’t always work out.
“Getting ahead of the system is a safe gamble, but still a gamble,” Patterson said. “The system wasn’t really designed for it, so it isn’t a perfect science.”
But by working hard and making educated decisions, motivated students have a good shot at getting a degree in three years or less.
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This article was originally published in October 2016. It has been updated.
1 U.S. News and World Report, “ See How Average Student Loan Debt Has Changed,” Sept. 13,. 2022.