Jaafar Ashtiyeh—AFP/Getty Images
By Megan Leonhardt
July 12, 2016

In this age of ever-rising college costs, scholarships and aid packages only go so far. After that, you have to pick up the tab. For me, that meant finding a creative (and perhaps extreme) way to cut costs: graduate early.

It takes the average student almost six years to earn a bachelor’s degree. I did it in three. It wasn’t easy, but when I weighed some minor hardships against having to take out more than $20,000 in student loans, my decision was easy — and has paid long-lasting dividends.

Why I Did It.

I tend to be more of a spendthrift than a penny-pincher in most aspects of my life. But when it came to financing my college education, I had a very tight-fisted approach, thanks to a lot of advice from family and friends. My father, a scientist, spent years dropping not-too-subtle hints and career advice in the form of his favorite adage: “If you get a B.A. in English, you may as well start practicing the line ‘do you want fries with that?’”

So, yeah, I certainly knew up front that my chosen field of study, journalism, didn’t pay the best.

I narrowed down the options to public universities in Ohio (my home state, and therefore available at a discount) and the private colleges that offered me scholarships or financial aid to lower the total cost enough to be on par with a state school. Athens-based Ohio University offered the degree I wanted and fell within those requirements.

But choosing a cheaper school wasn’t enough. As the bills for housing deposits and enrollment fees started to trickle in, my parents sat me down for a very frank conversation. They had two children three years apart in age, and while I had secured several scholarships, they couldn’t afford to pay multiple tuitions at once. So as I was graduating from high school, my parents and I decided I would try to graduate in three years, rather than four.

And that decision turned out to be a major money-saver — by the time my fourth year rolled around, Ohio University was charging roughly $9,500 for tuition. Factoring in housing, food, books, and social activities, that fourth year would have set me back around $21,400.

How I Did It.

Planning ahead is the truly crucial aspect. There’s really no getting around it. For me, that began the summer before I started college. By the time I attended freshman orientation, I had already mapped out which courses I’d need for each quarter during my freshman year.

I also signed up for the earliest orientation session so that I had a better chance of getting all the courses I needed as prerequisites for core classes I planned to take later in the year. Many students take undemanding classes fall semester to help ease into college life, but being on the three-year track means every single semester is important.

Collaborating with your academic adviser and professors also can help immensely. I alerted my adviser to my goal of graduating in three years during our first meeting. Working closely with professors pays off—particularly when you need to beg them for a spot in a closed-out class you need to take. It will happen.

Yet even with help from professors and advisers, it wasn’t easy. Not only was I almost always taking a full course load (and many times, exceeding the full-time credit limit), but I also couldn’t afford to fail classes or retake sessions for a better grade to boost my GPA. I had to make every class count.

The full course load also made holding down a part-time job difficult, so I juggled jobs and internships during my breaks. I also took a few summer classes at my local community college to fulfill some general education requirements. These six-week courses only set me back a few hundred dollars and cleared up time in my schedule for core classes.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t have fun. I was involved in several campus publications and took part in Greek life. I even studied abroad while I was in school. I spent a semester as a foreign exchange student at the University of Southern Denmark, which offered free tuition through a program with Ohio University.

For five months of housing, food, transportation and other necessities, I spent roughly $5,000. That’s half of what I would have spent for the same semester in Athens. And the credits I earned taking Danish language, modern history and culture all counted toward my specialization (my school’s version of a minor) in European studies.

The Upshot.

It’s all about perspective. I looked at graduating in three years as a challenge, rather than a burden.

Did I miss out on some fun activities with my friends during senior year? Yes. And trust me, I really felt the emotional tug when my friends would call me in the wee morning hours to catch up. I appreciated the sentiment, but I had to get up the next morning for work while they could sleep until noon. It was isolating at times. I was finding my footing in my first job, while they were still focused on Homecoming and Greek Week.

The earlier graduation, which took place shortly after the financial crisis, also meant that the job market was more difficult. A year later, many of my friends in journalism were able to find jobs before walking across the stage at graduation. Meanwhile, for me, it was a fight to find work when newsrooms across the country were significantly downsizing their staffs.

Although I may have missed out on certain opportunities, I gained others. I was able to move out and take a job in Manhattan after college without the burden of student loans. I was able to take annual international trips and still had money to sock away in savings and live comfortably. All possible without having to struggle with debt. And it’s that financial piece of mind that really makes me confident I made the right choice.

So if you need to cut college costs, consider the advantages of spending less time on campus. It very well may be the best money you never spend.

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