For most students, getting their college bachelor's degree takes four years. For some, five.
For Michelle Schroeder-Gardner? Three.
The 28-year-old financial blogger from St. Louis graduated in business administration and management in 2010, and then later earned a finance MBA. By stacking credits while still in high school and taking a heavy course load in college, she shaved a full year off her college experience at Webster University. "I saved at least $40,000," she said.
Schroeder-Gardner's college-on-steroids experience is an instructive one. What if one solution to the nation's student debt crisis was right in front of our noses this whole time: Finishing your degree as quickly as possible?
A quarter of students already take an accelerated load, according to a new report by student loan company Sallie Mae.
If a student combines that with the ballooning number of advanced-placement credits, it could be a powerful one-two punch for saving 25 percent of a college education if you can shave off a whole year.
For a public four-year college for out-of-state students that could be $23,890 annually in tuition and fees alone, according to the College Board. Students at private institutions would save more, with average tuition and fees at $32,410 a year.
So how do you press fast-forward on your college years, and lighten your debt load in the process? Here are a few tips:
1. Get on the Advanced Placement train. Almost 3 million students took nearly 5 million AP exams in 2016, according to the College Board. That is more than double the 2.3 million exams taken a decade prior.
There are other options, too. Kristina Ellis, author of "How To Graduate Debt-Free," suggested taking advantage of dual-enrollment high school classes (offered in partnership with local colleges), IB diplomas (International Baccalaureate), and CLEP tests (College-Level Examination Programs) to springboard you into advanced college work.
A caveat: Your desired college may not accept such advanced credits, so do the necessary research beforehand.
2. Sign up for required courses immediately. Most majors require a specific sequence of mandatory classes in order to graduate. Miss the sign-up period for even one of those classes, or be locked out because it has already reached capacity, and your entire early-graduation plan goes out the window. "Act fast so you don't get closed out," said Nancy Brenner, a New York City public relations professional who polished off her Brooklyn College degree in three years.
3. Prep for an early career. Sign up for campus job fairs, check in at the recruitment office and let career counselors know about your accelerated graduation date.
4. Sacrifice a summer. Look to the summer months as an useful way to pile up additional credits in a more relaxed atmosphere. Yes, you will pay tuition for that summer semester, and it will require that you give up some beach or summer job time.
But if an intensive summer can help cancel another full year of schooling, then it can be worth the short-term pain. That is what Schroeder-Gardner did, taking so many credits one summer that "the dean advised me not to," she said, laughing. "I used time to my advantage — and always made sure everything flowed together perfectly."
Chris Taylor writes for Reuters.