How to Graduate College in 4 Years — and Save Money on Loans

Need some motivation to go to class? Well, slacking off could cost you $25,000.

That’s how much you can expect to pay for taking an extra year to graduate from a public university. (The price only increases with private and for-profit colleges.)

Unfortunately, the majority of students — about 56% of them — don’t earn their degree within four years of starting school, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, analyzed by The Penny Hoarder.[infogram

Those extra years often leave students taking out additional student loans to cover the costs, adding to the already burdensome $1.54 trillion in outstanding student loan debt.

But getting that tassel within four years isn’t easy. Fortunately, we have tips to help you no matter where you are on your college journey.

How to Graduate College in 4 Years and Save on Student Loans

Check out these tips for every stage of college to help you get — and stay — on track for graduating on time.

In High School: Get a Head Start on Credits

You don’t have to wait to graduate from high school to start earning college credits that put you on the fast track to your degree.

Earning credits for prerequisite courses in high school can save you from spending time and money on the pricier four-year university courses.

You can sign up for the College Board’s Advanced Placement program to take the high school class subject followed by an exam that potentially awards college credit.

Pro Tip

Many test-prep and exam schedules have been affected by the pandemic. Check with your local site for updates and possible online options.

If you feel like you’ve already mastered the subject, you can skip the class and head straight to one of the 34 College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, which can earn you up to three credits for each passing test grade.

The price of the exams is a much better deal than the price you’ll pay for classes at any university — so look at that cost as an incentive to commit to the time and effort these exams require.

For those willing to commit to the rigors of college coursework before hitting campus, check with your high school for low-cost or free options like dual enrollment, International Baccalaureate and summer college. Just be sure to confirm with your college of choice that they’ll accept any credits you earn.

Applying to Colleges: Choose a Major

Undecided? Prolonging that decision could cost you when your degree requirements force you to stick around longer than four years. Some majors only offer courses in certain semesters, so if you don’t take the classes according to the schedule, your college career could be delayed as you wait for a prerequisite.

And if you switch your majors a few times, it could cost you more than the time you wasted taking unnecessary classes.

Why? Some states have adopted excess credit hour (ECH) policies that charge students if they exceed a predetermined limit for credits — typically 115% to 130% of a degree’s typical required credits.

So if your degree program requirements are 120 hours, you could start getting socked with fees after 138 credit hours, which is easy to do if you spent your first two years pursuing a different major (or two).

Pro Tip

Don’t wait until your senior year to schedule a meeting with your faculty adviser to ensure you’re scheduled to take classes in the correct order to graduate on time.

If you know your intended major when you’re touring campuses (even if it’s virtually), schedule a separate tour of the department.

Get the names of faculty and students who’ll be willing to answer questions about completion rates and potential obstacles (including prerequisites and internship requirements). Ask to join social media groups for students within your major.

If you don’t have any ideas for a major yet, consider completing your first two years at a community college, then transfer to the four-year college. You’ll save money on the lower-level courses, and it can give you time to decide your future career path.

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Starting College: Learn New Study Habits

Think you’re so smart? The transition from high school to college can be a tough one — even for the good students.

Just ask Melanie Jean Robertson.

She’s in her third and final year at the University of Georgia — she’s graduating a year early thanks to passing AP exams and taking summer college classes while in high school. (See? Told you.)

But even after graduating from high school with a 4.4 GPA and loads of honors on her resume, Robertson said the transition to college forced her to learn new study skills.

Pro Tip

Psst. Read this post for more advice upperclassmen wish they could tell their freshman year selves.

“I thought I had school figured out, but coming into college… the grading systems are different for each of my classes,” she said. “You’re going to have to adjust the way that you study. You’re going to have to adjust the way that you approach classes.

“You’re going to have to really work for yourself.”

Robertson suggested connecting with other students to compare class notes and creating an organization system to help you track classes and assignments that no longer fall within the tidy confines of a school day.

And with fewer chances for grades, use any extra credit assignments to build up a points buffer — just in case you forget an assignment or bomb a test.

Figuring out the study skills that work best for you will help you spend less time re-taking classes that put you behind your graduation schedule.

In College: Don’t Give Up

Ugh. You’re in your junior year and are just realizing you won’t graduate in four years — or maybe even five.

Should you give up now and cut your losses?

Even with the extra costs, dropping out of school is probably not the best choice.

Pro Tip

If finishing the degree isn’t an option, contact your college adviser and the financial aid office to decide next steps. Then determine how much you owe in student loans and choose a repayment plan.

After all, borrowers who don’t complete their degree are three times more likely to default on student loans than those who graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

And yes, the government has extended the forbearance period for federally held student loans through Dec. 31, 2020. But you’ll still end up on the hook for those student loans at some point — sans an earnings-boosting degree to cover the payments.

Consider cutting back to half time or finishing classes online. By removing yourself from campus life, you can focus on working more hours and graduating.

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln. Senior multimedia producer Chris Zuppa contributed to this story.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.

The Penny Hoarder’s 2021 Survey on Child Care Costs

When you have a baby, you understand your life is going to change significantly.

You’re responsible for another human being. You’ll lose tons of sleep. And, of course, you’ll have a bunch of new expenses.

Diapers. Formula. Clothing. Toys. But one of the biggest expenses that hits parents is child care.

The Penny Hoarder surveyed 2,000 parents in September 2021 asking about how child care costs affected their lives. Despite extra financial support in the form of pandemic stimulus checks and child tax credits this year, a large majority of families feel overwhelmed.

This graphic breaks down how many parents feel overwhelmed by the cost of childcare.

The Financial Toll of Child Care

For working parents, child care is a necessity. Yet, it’s often challenging to secure and afford quality care.

“Working families across the country pay a significant percentage of their annual earnings to cover the price of child care,” said Mario Cardona, Chief of Policy and Practice for Child Care Aware of America, a national child care advocacy organization.

For many parents, it costs more to send their kids to day care than to put a roof over their heads.

“In the Midwest, Northeast and South, the price of full-time, center-based care for two children is the highest category of household expenses, including housing, transportation, food and health care,” Cardona said. “In the West, the price of child care for two children is surpassed only by the high price of housing.”

Half the parents we surveyed reported spending at least 25% of their income on child care. That’s a significant increase from when The Penny Hoarder surveyed parents about the cost of child care in 2018. Back then, the median percentage of income parents said they spent on child care was 15%.

Child Care Aware of America uses an affordability benchmark from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which states that families who are receiving child care subsidies should not pay more than 7% of their income toward co-payments.

“We’ve used this benchmark to say that no family should pay more than 7% of income towards child care, whether they receive child care subsidies or not,” he said.

Following these guidelines, a family earning $5,000 a month should be paying no more than $350 a month for child care.

The Sacrifices Parents Make

The expense of child care forces parents to make hard choices.

Four out of 10 parents say they’ve gone into debt due to the cost of child care. Over a quarter of parents have had to move to a different home to afford child care. Almost 38% of parents have had to take on a second job or side hustle.

Having to pay a child care provider makes it tough to meet other financial responsibilities. Almost 28% of parents say they’ve had to choose between paying for child care or paying their rent or mortgage on time.

About 35% say they’ve had to choose between paying for child care or paying a credit card bill on time.

Not paying a bill on time often results in late fees, but for some families, an extra fee is better than losing a coveted spot at a child care center and facing the challenge of finding other arrangements.

Other parents figure that it makes more sense to leave the workforce than to spend so much of their income paying for child care. Nearly 1 out of 5 parents say they’ve had to quit a job due to the costs of child care.

Pro Tip

Here are 17 companies that provide child care assistance as an employee benefit.

Leaving the workforce has ripple effects beyond a loss of income. Many stay-at-home parents find it difficult to return to work due to gaps in their employment history. They lose out on opportunities for career advancement. Not having access to an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan means stay-at-home parents miss out on the ability to grow their retirement savings.

63 percent of people consider childcare costs in whether or not they'll have another child.

Help Needed

The Penny Hoarder’s survey on child care costs survey found that financial support during the pandemic has helped parents pay for child care.

Seventy percent of parents said stimulus check money helped with the cost of child care during the pandemic. Over 83% of those receiving monthly child tax credit payments said that money has helped with child care expenses this year.

This financial assistance, however, is temporary. About 1 in 5 parents receiving child tax credits reported that once the monthly payments end in December, they don’t believe they’ll be able to continue paying for care.

Looking for more help? Read how FSAs, employer programs and tax benefits can help you manage the cost of child care.

Methodology: The Penny Hoarder used Pollfish to conduct a national survey about the cost of child care with 2,000 people completing the survey Sept. 8-10, 2021. Survey responses are weighted so that each response is representative of the U.S. population.

Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Chris Zuppa, The Penny Hoarder’s multimedia content creator, contributed to this report.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.

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