Here’s How 56% of College Students Could Save on Student Loans

A woman and man do college work together at the library.
Getty Images

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.

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.