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Want to Save a Year's Worth of College Tuition? Here's How

Guest Contributor


By Erin Hack

Families continue to get squeezed by the cost of college, but there is one way to dramatically cut costs — graduating in three years.

That doesn’t have to mean overloading on Advance Placement classes in high school or taking the maximum number of credits each semester in college. What it does mean is doing some homework to learn about the options before deciding whether this approach is workable for an individual student.

Credit for Prior Learning, CLEP exams and accelerated degree programs are just a few ways students can graduate faster at less cost.

Keep in mind that these programs aren’t for everyone. A student who is unsure of what they want to major in might do better spending a full four years at college so they have time to sample courses before deciding on a path. Others who are poor test takers might find the stress of exams to get college credit to be too much.

But for many students, there is a path to saving money by graduating from college in less time. Here are a few ways to do just that.

Dual Credits/Concurrent Enrollment

Some high schools let students enroll in a college course that counts towards their high school graduation requirements while also earning college credit. Many of these courses can even be taken at the high school during the school day as part of the student’s regular curriculum.  This can be a great way to rack up college credits before even enrolling in college.

What to watch out for: Check the rigor of the coursework. Is the student up to it? Conversely, is there an AP class on the same subject offered at the high school that may actually be more rigorous (and therefore more impressive to college admissions officers)?

AP Exams

Most high school students and their parents are familiar with Advanced Placement courses — semester- and year-long college-level classes students take at their high school. In the spring, students sit for a test which determines whether and how much college credit they can receive. Students whose schools do not offer AP classes can still study on their own and sign up to take an AP test at a site in their area.

What to watch out for: Colleges vary on which AP subjects they accept for credit, what score students need to earn in order to receive credit, and how much AP credit in total they will accept. While AP tests are scored on a scale of 1–5 with 3 considered a passing score, some colleges require students to receive at least a 4 on a test to receive college credit. (In Illinois, all public higher education institutions are required to award credit to students who receive a 3 or higher on an AP test.) Students can check the College Board website to find guidelines for specific colleges. In some cases, students may receive more credit for a higher score. For example, at the University of Illinois, a student would receive three credit hours for a 3 or 4 on the AP Psychology test but four credit hours if they score a 5.

CLEP Exams

The College Level Exam Courses or CLEP exams enable students to test out of certain college courses. According to the College Board, more than 2,900 colleges and universities award college credit for CLEP tests.

Students can choose from more than 30 tests in areas that include foreign language, science, literature and math. The tests offer flexibility, allowing students to schedule the tests at any time throughout the year at a local testing center.

What to watch out for: Not all colleges accept CLEP credit. You can check the College Board website to see a particular college’s policy regarding CLEP exams. Unlike with AP tests, students don’t have the benefit of learning the material in their own high school under the direction of a teacher. There are, however, books and online courses students can use to prepare on their own. Through the Modern States Alliance Freshman Year for Free program, students can take free online college courses to prepare for CLEP and AP exams.

Credit for Prior Learning

Some colleges and universities offer course credit for prior experience. This can be particularly attractive for older students with work experience or young people with extensive volunteer experience.

For example, Alverno College in Milwaukee has a Credit for Prior Learning program that enables students to earn up to 24 credits towards graduation. Students complete a course assessment, write essays, or complete a portfolio to demonstrate their knowledge in a particular course. One student, for example, earned nine credits by showing how her work on voter engagement campaigns fulfilled the knowledge she would have gained through three different courses.

What to watch out for: Not all work or volunteer experience will earn credits. It’s not just the experience that’s important, it’s the knowledge gained through that experience.

Competency Based Education

Often geared to busy adults with family or work responsibilities, competency-based education allows students to progress through coursework online at their own pace. It can save money because it allows students to complete as many courses as they can for one flat tuition rate during a subscription period.

Institutions like the University of Wisconsin offer competency-based education through a Flexible Option program with online programs offered through several of its campuses.

What to watch out for: Because this is a work-at-your-own-pace, online program, students need to be self-motivated. Offerings may be more limited than at a brick and mortar college, with fewer options for fields of study.

Accelerated Degrees

Some colleges and universities offer accelerated plans for students to complete their degrees in three years. Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana offers this option for all of its undergraduate degrees. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities noted about 20 schools that have initiated accelerated degree programs since 2009.

Other schools, such as Temple University in Philadelphia offer combined undergraduate/masters programs that allow students to take some graduate level courses as undergraduates that count towards both their undergraduate and graduate degrees, enabling them to earn an advanced degree in a shorter amount of time.

What to watch out for: If a college requires students to take summer classes, this may limit a student’s ability to take part in internships or earn money from a summer job. Also, the pace may be too much for students who aren’t able to lighten their course load through Advance Placement or CLEP credits.

Despite the cost savings of graduating in three years, some parents and students prefer the traditional four-year college experience. Those families may still find that AP and CLEP tests give them more bang for the buck by enabling students to pursue a double major in just four years’ time.

Of course, with just 41 percent of students completing their bachelor’s degree in four years, even committing to graduating in the traditional four years, rather than five or six, could prove a huge cost savings for many students and their families.

Erin Hack is an advisor with My College Planning Team in the Chicago area. She is also a school counselor at Batavia High School in Batavia, IL. She earned her M.A. in School Counseling from Concordia University. Erin is also an AP and SAT testing coordinator.
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