What is a 3-year college degree program and how much does it cost?

College students looking to step on the accelerator can do so with three-year academic programs. (iStock)

Heads up, college students — current and future. If you're interested in graduating ahead of schedule, you might consider a three-year college program. 

By shortening your collegiate cycle by one year, you’ll not only graduate sooner but you’ll also get into the workforce faster and start earning money. However, you’ll have to accelerate your study habits.

"Three-year college programs, also known as accelerated degree programs, are not for everybody, as they are more intense," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the website, Private Student Loans Guru. "Instead of requiring four years, they require just three years, but may also require taking classes during the summer months."

Here's what you need to know about 3-year college programs:

How to graduate in 3 years

For college students who want to move forward with three-year programs, know that you have options.

"Even if a college does not have a formal three-year degree program, students can get a head start by earning college credits in high school. This can include taking Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests, as well as dual enrollment programs," Kantrowitz said. "These college credits, however, may count only to general requirements and not satisfy any prerequisites."

College students can also complete a three-year graduation program by leveraging the academic calendar.

"Less often, a degree can be earned in three years if the student is attending an institution that offers a full schedule year-round (three semesters per year)," said Valerie Cimarossa, vice president of marketing and technology at University of Advancing Technology, in Tempe, Az. (the university offers a three-semester option to its students). "This does not require the students to take an increased number of credits per semester, they simply attend one additional semester per year. This is a rare offering, though, most often found at career-focused schools."

There are 32 schools providing a pathway for undergraduates to finish in three years across the U.S., according to the Progressive Policy Institute. "That figure is similar to what we see across higher education institutions in Europe," said LaNysha Adams, an education consultant at Edlinguist Solutions LLC in Washington, D.C.

If you're in search of funding for college, you can head to Credible to shop around for private student loans once you've established your budget and determined the loan amount you'll need. You can compare student loan rates and lenders within minutes using Credible's free tools.

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How much money can you save with a 3-year college program?

By and large, one might calculate the full cost of a three-year college program by slicing 25% off of a four-year college degree. But it’s not really that simple. 

"The amount you can 'save' depends on many factors," said Racquel Bernard, a former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth and currently master admissions counselor at H&C Education Consulting, a college admission consulting firm. "Often, the cost difference does not exist. Students often pay the same amount just within a more condensed period of time. They may 'save' by skipping the fourth year, and therefore, missing the fourth year of increased tuition costs (given the overall upward trend in tuition costs for U.S. colleges)."

Costs and savings also vary from school to school.

"Taking a closer look at St. John's University, Grymes Hill Campus in New York, students can save $29,000 in the 3-year program," Adams noted. "UNC in Greensboro can save $9,000. Chatham University offers a BA in Interior Design in three years and students can save a full year of tuition. In looking at the overall costs of each of these institutions, factoring in the costs of living of each locale, then the money saved is significant."

Consider visiting Credible to learn more about private student loans and compare rates. It’s always a good idea to use an online student loan calculator to determine three-year college costs.

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How to pay for a 3-year college degree program

Some of the savviest ways to pay for a three-year college program should look familiar to college students.

"The best ways to pay include scholarships and grants, which families may receive more of, if they push for financial aid appeals," Adams said. "Because FAFSA uses a family's financial need based on prior-year tax info, families can request what is often called a financial aid appeal, to have more of their recent financial situation considered."

If you’ve hit your federal student loan limit, visit Credible to review private student loan options.

If a student wants to save money via three-year college programs, they should consider starting with a community college. "Once they celebrate the resources of their local college, they can determine how many more years they want to spend in school and how much they are willing to spend on their program," Bernard said.

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