Take More College Credits Now, Save on College Costs Now...and College Debt Later

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College. The American dream. College debt. The American nightmare. Tuition increases every single year. If rates continue to go up, how can anyone realistically be expected to pay for college without racking up exorbitant debt. Yes, research does prove that college graduates earn significantly more money than non-college grads over their life time.[1] But how much of that is going towards paying off college debt that has accrued interest year after year? By being proactive and putting in some extra work, you could save thousands on college, graduate early, have less debt and keep your hard-earned money in your pocket. Below are two examples of how to make it happen. Both require a commitment to a college experience that is academically intense. However, the potential savings in college costs is a significant reward.

[RELATED: Cut College Costs: 7 Tips that Colleges Hope You Won't Use]

First It’s Important to Understand How College Credits Work

A typical liberal arts degree requires about 120 credits. The actual number of credits needed to graduate depends on the college and the specific field of study chosen. The degree requirements include some combination of general education requirements (math, science, history, etc.), electives and major. Some colleges also require a minor or a second major or other area of concentration. The requirements are set up to be achieved over eight semesters or four years by taking an average of 15 credits. That’s five 3-credit courses each semester. Colleges also offer courses for a half credit, one credit, or four or five credits. So 15 credits a semester is definitely just an average. Some colleges work on other terms such as trimesters or quarters. This article focuses on the semester system.

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1. Max Out Your College Credits

Students pay one amount for a full-time credit load, usually starting at 12 credits. Most colleges allow you to take more than the 15 credit per semester average. Add a few more credits per semester and you could graduate a semester early, saving thousands of dollars and reducing your college debt. Each college sets a limit on how many credits can be taken each semester. An 18 credit limit per semester is not unusual. Sometimes the limit could be as high as 21 credits per semester. In some cases special permission is needed to take additional courses.

Here’s how it could work on average:
5 courses per semester at 3-credits each = 15 credits per semester
15 credits per semester x 8 semesters = 120 credits

Increase your course load by one course each semester and graduate a semester early:

6 courses per semester x 3-credits each = 18 credits per semester

18 credits per semester x 7 (instead of 8) semesters = 126 credits

By adding ONE additional course per semester you could graduate in three and a half years, saving thousands of dollars in college costs!

[RELATED: Cut College Costs While in High School: Two Programs the Really Work!]

Something to Consider:
Many students need their first year to get used to the differences between high school and college level work. It may be advisable to wait a bit before scheduling a heavier course load. Using this method, students could take the more traditional 15 credits each semesters of their freshman year and take 18 credits per semester starting their sophomore year and still have 120 credits in three and a half years.

2. Attend Community College During the Summer

Community colleges are an awesomely economical way to help students graduate from a four-year school earlier, cut down on college costs and reduce college debt. To make the most of thisProbability and MeasureCredit: John Morgan: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24742305@N00/3249101355 opportunity you will want to check with your college’s transfer credit policy to make sure that the courses you take at your community college will transfer. Just as important, you will need to know the maximum number of credits your college will accept from an outside institution. There is nothing worse than taking a course only to find out that it won’t transfer for one of these two reasons. This scenario is completely avoidable if you do your homework.

The easiest courses to get transferred are general education requirements and introductory level courses (i.e. Into to Psychology). Upper level courses may be transferable, but may count towards elective credits only. Generally, it’s more difficult to satisfy major requirements at an outside institution because each academic department is different and sets its own standards and requirements. If you want to use an upper level course to satisfy a major requirement, you’ll want to check with your four-year school first. Get it in writing so there are no questions after the fact. It’s important to note that credits from outside institutions may count towards graduation, but generally will not count towards your grade point average. So even if you get straight A’s in your community college courses, you will receive the credit but it will not improve your grade point average.

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Take Advantage of Summer Sessions

During the summer, colleges offer what’s known as “summer sessions.” Three summer sessions UF Carleton Auditorium Stageview Lecture Hall TablesCredit: cdsessums: http://www.flickr.com/photos/53313745@N00/4852097946is a typical number, with courses being offered during each of these sessions. These abbreviated courses cover the same amount of work as a semester long course so they tend to be intense. If you take courses during the summer session, especially if you take more than one at a time, make sure you are able to allot the appropriate amount of study time to it.


Here’s How it Could Work on Average:

Because each college sets its own transfer credit policy, for illustration purposes let’s say the four-year college you attend requires 120 credits to graduate and you are allowed to transfer up to 60 credits. If the community college you are looking to attend offers three summer sessions you could conceivably do the following and graduate from college a semester or year early and save considerably on total college costs.

Example 1:

  • Take three, 3-credit courses at a community college during the summers after your freshman and sophomore years at college and you would have 18 transfer credits to count towards your graduation.
  • Take an average course load at your four-year school during the academic year (15 credits a semester) and you could potentially graduate in three and a half years with 123 credits.

15 credits per semester at your four-year school each semester freshman, sophomore, junior and one semester of your senior year. 15 credits x 7 semesters = 105 credits

9 credits from a community college each summer for two summers 9 credits per summer x 2 summers = 18 credits

105 credits + 18 credits = 123 credits (graduate a semester early!)

The beauty of this is you have options about how to complete the credits. Want some down time over the summer? Double up on one summer session and complete your nine credits in two summer sessions instead of three.

Example 2:

  • Take 15 credits per semester during the freshman year at your four-year school (2 semesters) and you would have 30 credits towards graduation after freshman year.
  • Take 18 credits per semester during the sophomore and junior years at your four-year school and you would have 72 more credits towards graduation at the end of your junior year.
  • Take 9 credits each summer following your freshman and sophomore years at a community college and you will have earned 18 credits which are transferable to your four-year school to count towards graduation.
  • Graduate a year early and save immensely on college costs!

15 credits each semester during the freshman year at your four-year school. 15 credits x 2 semesters = 30 credits

18 credits each semester during the sophomore and junior year at your four-year school. 18 credits x 4 semesters = 72 credits

9 credits from a community college each summer for two summers. 9 credits x 2 summers = 18 credits

30 freshman credits + 72 sophomore and junior credits + 18 community college summer session credits =120 (graduate a year early!)

When Work is PlayCredit: Christmas w/a k: http://www.flickr.com/photos/81098106@N00/3820439723There are many ways to get in extra credits to help you graduate college early. For instance, community colleges offer winter sessions. Taking a winter course each winter for a few years will add to the credits when combined with regular and transfer courses. Some students shave the number of college credits needed to graduate by taking classes the summer before entering college.


Is It Cost Effective?
Consider this. A full-time course load at a community college near me during the summer is less than $1500. You’d pay that for one course as a part-time student at many four-year colleges. Spend $3000 over two summers to save twenty, thirty thousand or more? Totally worth it money wise.

TIP: You may also be able to transfer summer credits in from a four-year school. Sometimes taking summer courses at a different four-year school is cheaper than taking it at your “home” school. It is usually not as cost-effective as taking it at a community college, however.

TIP: If you receive financial aid during the academic year, there may be aid available for summer or winter courses. Speak to your financial aid counselor.

Worth Noting: The percentage of students who graduate private college in four-years in about 52%.[2] This number is worth considering when trying to calculate potential college costs and college debt. If your college education takes longer than four years, you may be taking on more debt than you expected. Knowing this in advance can help you develop a plan that ensures that you graduate in four years.

Things to Think About
While you can definitely cut college costs and potentially side-step tremendous college debt by graduating early, there are definitely trade-offs to consider. Students who chose this or a similar route need to be prepared for the academic rigor required. The “college experience” is more than satisfying a set of academic requirements. It’s also time of growth, practice and making mistakes in a safe environment. It’s also about leadership, professional development and interpersonal relationships. You may give up the opportunity to double or triple major, or participate in a study abroad program. Are there ways to make up for some of that? With some effort, yes. The twenty or thirty thousand or more question is, "Is graduating college early worth it to save on college costs?"