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Speed through college to slash tuition costs

If you want to cut college costs and limit student loan debt, then the old adage is true — "time is money."

The sticker price for a four-year college degree can easily tip into six figures; for the 2015-16 academic year, the College Board estimated the cost to attend at almost $44,000 for a private nonprofit institution and about $20,000 for a public one, including tuition, fees and room and board.

But many students don't graduate on time, a trend that pushes up the price of that degree.

"For a four-year institution, most of the students are not graduating in four years," said Jeffrey Selingo, author of "There Is Life After College."

Among students who started at a four-year private nonprofit college in 2007 (the latest data available), just 52.8 percent graduated within four years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At public four-year colleges, 33.5 percent got their four-year degree on time, and at for-profit four-year colleges, 22.5 percent did.

By the six-year mark, 59.4 percent of students had graduated, including 65.3 percent of those attending a private nonprofit college, 57.7 percent of those at a public college and 31.9 percent of those at a for-profit college.

Speeding up the timeline to graduate early — or at the very least, on time — can reduce the tab considerably. "How easy is it to do today? It's not particularly easy," said Paul Weinstein, director of Johns Hopkins University's graduate program in public management, who has studied the potential savings of shifting to a three-year degree system.

While some colleges have accelerated programs (more on that below), most students looking to graduate sooner than usual are in the position of trying to compress four years of requirements into three. "You're talking about the very top-notch students who are able to do that," he said.

"At first, it was a money play," said Elizabeth Schirmer Shores, 31, who fulfilled undergraduate requirements for a double major in marketing and international business from Villanova University in three years, thanks to a combination of credits earned in high school and extra classes taken in college. (Shores stayed for a fourth year to walk with her class, but her bill was limited to just one course. She spent the rest of her time in internships.)

Elizabeth Schirmer Shores
Source: Brandi Beaty
Elizabeth Schirmer Shores

Later, Shores — who is currently on sabbatical from her role as vice president of sales and marketing for Sweetwater Energy, serving as executive director for nonprofit Untapped Shores International — shaved six months off her MBA through the University of Rochester. The program was supposed to take 3.5 years, but she sped through by taking two extra online classes through Harvard University Extension School. "College classes can rise up to $4,000 per class," she said. "It adds up to maybe tens of thousands of dollars saved."

Here's how to quickly get that degree:

Score on exams. AP classes as well as the College-Level Examination Program and DSST exams allow students to obtain college credits without taking college courses. "I've seen cases where students have been able to waive an entire freshman year by doing well on these placement tests," said David Levy, editor of Edvisors.com.

Exam costs are cheaper than college courses. Each AP exam costs $92 ($62 for low-income students), for example, but state and school rebates may cover some or all of the cost.

Before you bank on this strategy, however, make sure your college of choice will accept such credits, said Weinstein. Many have tightened requirements to accept only top scores, or nixed using them at all, he said. For example, Dartmouth College no longer accepts AP scores toward graduation requirements, only using them to determine course placement.

Start college classes early. Check to see if any local colleges offer early access for high school students, either in addition to their regular high school course load or through concurrent enrollment programs where a student earns both high school and college course credit. As a high school student, Shores was able to take two free college classes for credit through the University of Rochester, netting an extra six credits.

At Marlboro College, high school juniors or seniors can take one free class and Vermont residents can take up to two others without cost through its dual enrollment program. (Subsequent classes are offered at a discount.) The Community College of Baltimore County lets eligible high school students take up to four classes tuition free; other programs allow for parallel enrollment and dual credit.

Colleges don't always accept transfer credits, however, said Weinstein. Try to get a sense of the transfer requirements at the colleges where you plan to apply.

Consider accelerated programs. When deciding among Colleges A, B and C, factor in whether there are accelerated programs. Syracuse University, for example, offers a "3+3" program through its Whitman School of Management and College of Law for students who want to pursue both an undergraduate and law degree at a faster pace. Purdue University's Brian Lamb School of Communication has three-year plans of study in five majors, with estimated savings of $9,290 compared with a four-year degree for in-state residents and $18,692 for nonresidents.

Check for competency-based programs. "[These programs] set out a series of skills you need to have for a degree and learning outcomes and tests you on those outcomes," Selingo said. That can help accelerate a degree if you're coming to college with work or military experience, he said. At Western Governor's University, which offers a competency-based program, the average student graduates with a bachelor's degree in less than three years and spends roughly $18,000 on his degree.

Not all competency-based programs are created equal, Selingo said. Assess the college's reputation and program requirements before diving in.

Develop a game plan. Map out a path to graduation, figuring out which prerequisites and required class you need to take when, Levy said.

Missing out on a class that's only offered once a year could add a semester or more to your graduation timeline. (If a class is full, ask the professor or dean's office for an override.) Creating a plan can also help you find overlap — can one class do double-duty for your major, as well as a general college requirement?

"The best thing a student can do is check with his or her advisor to make sure they're on track," Levy said.

Ask the college for a review of your requirements well ahead of graduation to make sure you won't come up short.

Overload. "Most students take the minimum course load to be a full-time student," said Levy. Usually, that's 12 credits. But many colleges allow students to take 15 or 18 credits before incurring additional charges, he said. Provided you can handle the work, those extra free classes could eliminate a semester or more.

Branch out. Don't limit yourself to classes during the regular semester and at your own college. Summer and winter intercession classes (at your own college or elsewhere) are often cheaper per credit. Purdue's accelerated programs, for example, estimate the cost of a summer on campus, including tuition, room and board, at $5,501 — roughly half the cost to attend for a single regular semester.

Online classes at your own college and others also tend to be cheaper, and can be fit in during the academic year or over the summer, Selingo said.

"That enables them to navigate the course catalog much more easily," he said.

But like AP credits and community college classes taken in high school, not all coursework taken at other colleges can apply toward graduation requirements. Before you sign up, check with your college to make sure the credits will transfer.