Why Taking Four Years for College is a Good Choice

The Case for Not Running through College

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A popular trend is to graduate college and get that degree as quickly as possible. Every year spent in college is another year with money pouring out the door, not a drop from the faucet, more like water at the top of Niagara Falls cascading over the falls! Plus, you also are losing some of those precious early earning years when compounding interest is in full effect!

College planning isn't as easy as enjoying a sunset
College planning isn’t as easy as enjoying a sunset

If you understand compound interest it may be mortifying to you that the current general expectation is that a young person spend those first years an adult not ferreting away money and investing, but instead signing away their net worth to giant student loans. Now, there is a huge push to avoid college, take a gap year, or work in the trades. But for many high school students college is their preferred option, and it’s their first chance to make a big lifestyle choice.

I’m thrilled I took on my debt, and took the full four years to complete my undergraduate degree – the master’s, well, that’s kind of another story. (Maybe thrilled is a bit too strong of a word, but I wouldn’t exchange my college experience for an extra year of work under my belt.)

Your high school or college student, may be more aware of the financial implications of their choices than you realize. And there are many ways to minimize debt and still get the traditional college experience.

Hacking College 101

Four years of college will cost you six figures if you include housing and don’t choose community college for the first two years. But just because that is the sticker price, college will not necessarily cost that much!

There are a number of ways to get free or greatly reduced college tuition. Most of them come with a pretty giant catch, but you may be willing to make that exchange for a discounted education. (Note: this will mostly apply to my US readers, sorry international readers!)

Things to do Before Entering College

To save the most money for college you’ll want to start thinking of your options while your student is in high school. And hey you, student! This is the time for you to start college planning, thinking ahead, and making these choices! Independence is awesome! College planning isn't as easy as enjoying a sunset

  1. FAFSA Application – even if your parents are high income earners you should find out if you qualify for any federal student aid. This one application often triggers the school you are attending to inform you of any scholarships you may qualify for!
  2. ROTC or National Guard Service – you commit to serve in the Military as a commissioned officer in exchange for fully free tuition, room, and board. You typically have to stay in the dorms to gain access to that free room and board, which may not be so fun once you are an upperclassman. I have a few friends who did this, and Gwen from Fiery Millennials chose a similar path.
  3. Evans Scholarship – I’ve known this was an option since high school, but I did not want to go down this path. Basically, If you spend your summers as a golf caddy in middle and high school. You can apply for and receive free tuition and housing at many Midwest or North Pacific schools. The course you caddy for needs to sponsor you, but hey, you were going to work a summer job anyways, right?
  4. AP or dual enrollment credits from high school – this is the “easiest” option of the bunch. If you are a high performing student you can rush through high school and spend some time taking college classes for free. This works best if you at least have an idea of the schools you are looking to attend, and the major you plan to study, since not all AP/dual enrolled classes will actually count towards your degree. College planning isn't as easy as enjoying a sunset
  5. After you pick your university: Apply for University Specific Scholarships – you have a much better chance at getting these than national scholarships, since they are more tailored for you!
  6. Apply for community scholarships – get involved in your community and apply for any scholarships your city, church, county, school district, Kiwanis club, or local organizations offer. Learning about these scholarships early will help you plan your volunteer hours and extracurriculars to qualify for more funding!
  7. Workplace Scholarships – parents should apply for any scholarships your company sponsors for your child. Ask HR early about the requirements, so you won’t be caught last minute on the application. Let your student know about these scholarships and the requirements early enough so a quality application can be submitted.
  8. Participate in a variety of extracurricular activities – The only way to earn scholarships is to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack. This means finding a few things that interest you and pursuing them. Then you need to learn writing skills to convey how those pursuits will help you become a better student and improve the university.
  9. Start working in high school – start working and saving some money, so you can better understand what student loans and money are. This will help you understand how many hours you’ll have to work to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt!

Ways to Save Once You’ve Started College

Earning scholarships and reducing student loan debt doesn’t end once you step on campus! It’s time to enjoy yourself, embrace frugality, and get involved! A big part of enjoying college is by making friends, and getting involved in student organizations will help you earn even more scholarships after you start at school!

I earned extra scholarships and financial aid every year I was at school, by doing one thing:

Asking for them!

My financial situation hadn’t changed substantially from year to year, but I got involved on campus, got good grades, and was able to get more funding! I was awarded scholarships, given the best on campus jobs (learning center tutor FTW), and landed great summer jobs. All those things nicely lead into the next. Building relationships with the “adults” on campus, helps to lower your student loan debt. How to complain less! Complainypants!

All of this led to me only taking out federally unsubsidized student loans my freshman year! The next three years I was able to earn enough income, grants, and scholarships to avoid the interest earning loans!

Here are some of the best ways to save money on college once you are already there:

  1. Be a resident advisor (RA) – you get free housing by serving as the RA in one of the dorms. You live with the students, are on call 1-2 nights per week, and help maintain order in the dorms – eh, I think they use a term like campus housing now. You can’t be an RA until your sophomore year, and the competition is high, so practice your interview skills and build your resume during your freshman year!
  2. Apply for University Specific Scholarships – you have a much better chance at getting these than national scholarships, since they are more tailored for you!
  3. Get to know a professor or two – building mentor/mentee relationships helps you to be less intimidated in your first job, and have a successful career. Working closely with university professors I had great references for internships, scholarships, and was able to spend two summer abroad doing research I loved! Professors hire graders, research assistants, and know of scholarships, so they may be able to help you find more money!
  4. Lead or start a student organization – to keep landing those scholarships you have to continue to set yourself apart from your peers. Many professional organizations have on campus groups and award scholarships to students actively involved. This often leads to landing a job post graduation and starts to build your network now.

Why taking Four Years is Sometimes the Right Choice

My Experience

College planning is up to you
It’s up to you to plan your route!

I entered college as a type A, well prepared student. I took AP classes in high school and netted 31 credits, or roughly, one year of college. Since, I went into engineering, and the course schedule is fairy regimented I could have easily graduated in 3.5 years, but 3 years would have been tough.

I elected to take on a few more thousand dollars in debt, and truly get the college experience.

As someone who dreams of financial independence/early retirement (FIRE), I see my ideal life structured similarly to that of a college student (just without all the self-doubt and seeking affirmation from my peers). I hung out with an awesome crowd of peers, who still form one of my major social circles today. We spent our spring and summer breaks abroad working on water, sanitation, and hygiene projects (WASH) internationally. Or interning at our future employers. We were all career focused and continue to be (or FI-focused).

College was our chance to grow a strong personal and professional network.

Your Story

College planning should take the path you desire, and likely won’t follow any sort of conventional wisdom. Every story is different, and the money alone shouldn’t be the decider in how many years to spend at university.

College planning don't forget time abroad
Your path may take you here, breakfast on the rooftop deck in Zanzibar!

There are many things that need to be considered along with debt in navigating your path:

  1. Your grades – many employers require a minimum of a 3.0 GPA to even talk to you about scheduling an interview. Don’t let fear of debt  make your grades suffer by stretching yourself too thin. (Grad schools are even more strict.)
  2. Hobbies – we work to fund the life we want to live. I wanted to spend a substantial amount of time overseas in college, and I knew that may be tough once I started working full time. As long as the hobbies help future “you” they may be worth pursuing and slowing down your trek through college.
  3. Your major – will your major lead to a job where you’ll be able to pay off your debt? If not, you may want to get through school quickly, and recognize the compromise you are making by choosing a lower paid career path.
  4. Fear – fear plays into many financial choices and taking on debt is a big one. Recognize who is taking on the debt and a plan to pay it off to lower the fear.
  5. What’s next – Yes you want to live for the now, but you also need to take the college planning a step forward: career planning. What is the best option for our career? Will going to school an extra year give you space for another internship or co-op, so you can better identify where you want to work after graduating? Would a semester abroad help you nail that interview and meet company expectations?

Extending your college experience may be the right choice for you, and with some planning you should be more comfortable with that decision. Or maybe you’ll realize you want to graduate quickly and get out in the workforce, start your own business, and make some money!

Taking on debt is powerful, but your education will hopefully enable you to live the life you desire. Shouldn’t that be the end goal after all?

How did you save money on school? What are you college plans for yourself/your kids? Did you follow the traditional route or try something new?

18 comments on “The Case for Not Running through College”

  1. Great post!

    While my experience as a Norwegian student is different, there are still some common points. I didn’t rush my time in university too. Even if I never use my education again, I still learned so much and grew so much as a person that I still consider it worth it.

    Independence is truly awesome!

    1. Reply

      Yes, using that degree comes in many forms, not just finding a job that requires your specific major 🙂

      Glad to hear this applies in Norway too!

    • Anonymous
    • 2017-12-28

    Good Morning Mrs. Kiwi! I wish a great rundown like this would have been available to me back when I was in HS! Unfortunately, only dial-up internet existed back then and college apps were done by hand! I forced myself to go to college with the mindset I needed a degree because I wanted to be the first member in my entire family tree to get one from a University. I ended up getting three! AA, BS and MBA! I worked 20-40hrs per week. Reflecting on that, there are so many opportunities today where employers will help pay for your school and degrees…and wished I could have thought of looking into those options as well back then!

    1. doh – this is Mrs. Defined Sight…I clicked a lil’ early! #needsmorecoffee

    2. Reply

      Yes, there are so many great resources for high school students (and parents of those students now)!

  2. I’m one of those in the “graduated in 3 years” camp, though I didn’t get there on purpose. I too had a ton of AP credits (close to 1 year), and through taking a summer class to avoid taking the harder one during the year meant I just had a ton of credits.

    Shortly into my second year, I realized that I could triple major if I stayed just 3.5 years, which is absolutely ridiculous. No one needs 3 majors 😉 It was also a lot cheaper to graduate early of course, but the biggest reason I’m glad I did is I was then able to move cross country, and then later get married, when I would have otherwise been in my senior year. 8 years of marriage later, I’m sure glad I took that path.

    I didn’t think to look for more scholarships after my first year though and I’m sure I ended up with more loans than necessary. Oh well. They’re paid off now 🙂

    1. Reply

      Haha, triple major? That’d be overkill for sure. And I definitely get finishing early to join your partner and get married!

  3. Nice post! I especially liked the break out of things to do before and after starting college. There are a number of scholarships to consider after starting as well.

    For my undergrad, I did take 4 years but could have been done in 2.5 or 3 with a single major due to a number of AP credits from high school. I graduated with 2 majors and a minor instead.

    Overall, no regrets looking back.

    1. Reply

      Thanks! The game doesn’t end once you start college! And yes, a few years later it all doesn’t matter if you can pay back those loans. No regrets here either.

  4. Reply

    Great post! There are scholarships and financial aid money available in so many places, from professional trade organizations to nonprofits. It comes down to digging around finding them and applying. The internet age has definitely opened up so many more opportunities to get help. And as you said, sometimes you just have to ask!

    1. Reply

      Few people are willing to put themselves out there and ask! It’s a good skill to learn, that I’m constantly working on now that I’m in the real world.

  5. I chose to graduate in three years and it was the perfect decision to me. I was still able to graduate with two majors (mathematics & economics) and a minor. I played sports, but didn’t study abroad – which wasn’t that interesting to me anyway.

    That said, it isn’t for everyone. I went into college knowing exactly what I wanted to major in and what I wanted to do after school. If I hadn’t known that, even a semester of wavering wouldn’t have let me accomplish everything I wanted too.

    1. Reply

      Congrats! You would definitely need a plan to double major in three years, that’s awesome!

  6. It’s almost embarrassing to say that I didn’t save anything for college, I wasn’t really allowed to work much in high school so I only worked summers which made enough to pay for my own high school optional expenses.

    Instead I paid for it with a combination of scholarships, grants, and working more than full time, and going to a cheaper state school so that I could graduate with a little bit of savings and no debt. But since I don’t know what JB will be able to do when the time comes, we’re saving as much as we can for zir in the 529 we’ve got set up.

    1. Reply

      JB has got some awesome parents focused on his college so early! Working full time in college is pretty rough, hats off to you for making that work!

  7. Reply

    Interesting post. My son entered college with 35 credits, making graduation after 3 years reasonable. The post definitely gives him some things to consider.

    1. Reply

      There are many options! And if you don’t take extra classes an extra semester may not cost you much more! I love all of your college savings tips!

  8. Reply

    Great article! There is something to be said about not rushing through everything. There’s always going to be another goal so you’ll spend half your life running towards something and missing the journey. Something about stopping to smell the roses, it’s about the journey not just destination and what not.

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