How to Complete a College Degree in Less Than Four Years

A decade ago it took four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree, with an additional two years to complete a master’s. Today, colleges have adjusted their norms to include students who complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. Not only does this take students out of the job market for two additional years, but it also racks up thousands of additional costs to parents and students, often in the form of higher student loan balances.
Complete College America conducted a study which concluded that less than 20% of college students graduate in four years. It also determined that each additional year a student attended a public university, they added $22,826 to the cost of their education and lost $45,327 in lifetime wages.

With these sobering statistics, it makes sense to focus on completing school faster to increase wages and reduce the total cost of a college education. There are many ways to accelerate your road to a degree, not all of which will save you money.

There are obvious benefits of early graduation include reducing overall costs, borrowing less in student loans, entering the workforce earlier increasing lifetime earnings, and completing graduate programs at an earlier age. However, finishing early takes planning and may not be the right pace for everyone.

Challenges to Graduating Early

The Schedule. One of the biggest challenges with planning an early graduation is taking all the classes you need to complete your degree. Courses which require pre-requisites can control the schedule and schools do not offer every course every semester.

• Overcome the challenge by arranging to meet with your guidance counselor before creating your schedule. Let them know upfront you want to complete school in three years . You may not be able to take as many electives and instead focus on  heavier class loads to meet the mandatory requirements. Knowing your schedule in advance also allows you to sign up for classes early reducing the chances of missing a needed class due to capacity restrictions.

Changing Your Major is another area that can derail plans for early graduation. After your freshman year, any change in major will likely lead to additional classes to meet the new major’s requirements. You may be able to switch within a general area, but not to a new field. For example, you might change from accounting to marketing, within the business school, without impacting your graduation date. However, moving from one school, or one discipline, to another may require additional credits that you have yet to accumulate. After the second year, even a change within your field could result in a longer time to degree completion.

• Overcome the challenge by carefully considering your major. Take personality tests in high school to gauge skills and interest. Work a summer in your potential field or interview those currently working in the field gauge job availability and the type of work it will require. Matching a major with your interests, strengths, and type of people you enjoy working with will go a long way to securing a degree in a field you love.

Losing Credits When You Transfer. Not all classes taken at one college college will transfer to another school, which could lead to taking and paying for classes that do not count towards your chosen degree.

• Overcome the challenge by carefully researching multiple universities and their programs.. When reviewing the course schedules, get approval from your current school before taking the class. Most schools rely on comparing syllabus descriptions to ensure the class qualifies.

How to Graduate with a Four-Year Degree in Three Years

1) Don’t Go It Alone. Work with an advisor from the start and meet with them at least once a semester. Advisors understand the system, your degree requirements, and what must happen for your success. They will help you choose classes wisely and find solutions when you hit roadblocks.

2) Start in High School. Taking AP courses or classes at a community college or high school, if they allow, can cover some or all  of your first-year classes. If you qualify, many school systems allow high school juniors and seniors to take community college classes and receive both high school and college credit Other times you can receive college credit for core classes such as English, math, history, science, and foreign languages through passing AP exams at the end of the year. This strategy alone could save a years’ worth of college classes and make it easier to graduate in three years once at the University.

3) Maximize Your Class Load. Graduating in three years will take focus and often requires 18 to 22 credit each semester. Universities generally allow you to take anywhere from 12 to 21 credits for full-time student status. Hitting the higher end of that each semester will allow you to complete the required number of credits, and all required classes, on a three-year schedule. Be aware that taking over 21 or 22 classes in a semester could lead to a surcharge.

4) Take Advantage of Summers Off. Adding classes in the summer months can help you complete prerequisites or other class scheduling challenges. Taking classes at home and then transferring credits can also save you money. However, summer class schedules are typically more limited than the fall and spring course offerings.

5) Limit Extracurricular Activities. Work, socialization, and clubs or sports may not be possible when meeting a goal of early graduation. Part of attending college is about gaining adult skills, preparing for your future, and gaining independence. To graduate early, you must balance those needs with a demanding class schedule.

6) Wisely Choose Your Major. Graduating ahead of schedule requires more focus, which also means you must have confidence in your choice of major as a freshman. Adding a double major or minor could lead to a longer completion time, as well as changing majors halfway through your college education.

The Graduation ‘Math’: A bachelor’s degree requires 120 credit hours of classes. From purely a numbers standpoint that means you can take six semesters of 20 hours each and finish in three years. That schedule does not require unusually heavy loads, surcharges due to additional classes, or even summers in school. However, the average student typically completes 138 credit hours, due to electives, changes in major, and other factors.

Entering college with even 12 credits from AP courses or community college classes will reduce the required load to 18 credits a semester, which is very doable.

With a little planning and diligence, you could save thousands of dollars in college costs, lower student loan balances, and get a jump on the job market, by completing your college degree in three instead of four or even six years.