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Paying for College

4 Alternatives to a Four-Year College Degree

These degrees, typically awarded after a two-year program, usually result in a career-oriented skill. Associate’s degree recipients earn about 24% more than high school graduates during their working life, reports the College Board. On average, men with an associate’s degree earn $49,000, and women earn $35,000. Popular fields include nursing, business and information technology. Police officers and business-degree holders earn some of the highest wages.

3. Take Two and Transfer

A four-year degree may eventually deliver higher earnings, but it also requires a pricey outlay for tuition, room and board if you attend a four-year residential college.

You could get your prerequisites taken care of for less at the local community college. Tuition and fees are two-thirds lower, on average, at a community college than at a four-year institution, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Spending two years at a community college could save you thousands in tuition and fees over a four-year public education; you'll save thousands more on room and board by living at home. Community colleges also offer night and weekend classes, so they are more accommodating to students who have jobs and families.


Although only about one in five community-college students transfer to a four-year college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, those who do have a decent track record of finishing. About 60% of community-college transfers graduate within four years of making the move—in line with the six-year grad rate of students who start at a four-year public college, and twice as high as the four-year grad rate at public colleges.

4. Earn a BA Degree in Three

Although three-year degree programs have existed for decades (Bates College, a private institution in Maine, has offered one since the 1960s), increases in both public- and private-school costs have contributed to a recent surge in their popularity. Nearly 20 private schools have added three-year degrees since the economic downturn in 2008, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

With tuition and fees increasing about 3% to 5% a year for the past few years, enrolling in a three-year degree program becomes doubly beneficial: Graduating in three years lets you avoid a fourth year of college costs, and you can start earning a year sooner. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which looked into these degrees for the University of Wisconsin, estimates that resident students could save about $25,000 on the total cost of college by finishing a year early.

Wisconsin isn't the only state exploring accelerated degree programs. Ohio's 2012–13 budget requires public institutions to produce plans for three-year bachelor's degrees, with a goal of adding these accelerated degree options to 60% of programs by 2014.

Private school programs include that of American University, where 2011–12 tuition and fees were $38,982 per year. The Washington, D.C., university launched its three-year "Global Scholars" program in 2011. Students complete 45 college credits each year including study abroad, and graduate one year early with a BA in international studies.

If you're already nervous about hacking it in a traditional college setting, the three-year track isn't for you. "A three-year degree appeals to very highly motivated students," says Thomas Harnisch, assistant director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. You may need to squeeze in extra classes, take summer courses, or acquire college credit in high school through advanced-placement classes.

Harnisch recommends going for an accelerated degree at an institution that charges by status -- full-time versus part-time -- instead of by credit hour. With a school that charges per credit hour, you won't save much, if anything, by overloading courses.

After working in event décor, Holland found that she didn't want to cut short her education after all. She has returned to school part-time to work toward an associate's degree in business administration with the option of rolling it into a bachelor's degree later on. Although the road she's taken to higher education hasn't been the traditional one, she's still developing the skills to make it in today's labor market.

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