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 got 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 says.
Schroeder-Gardner's college-on-steroids experience is an instructive one. What if one solution to the nation's student debt crisis were right in front of our noses this whole time: Finishing your degree as quickly as humanly possible?
A quarter of students already take an accelerated load, according to a new report by student loan company Sallie Mae, "How America Pays for College."
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.
Nate Sabat, who graduated from Boston's Berklee College of Music a year early, saved $50,000 when he graduated in 2015 because he was able to lop off a year.
"That's money in the bank. And my parents were very surprised and happy to hear it," says Sabat, currently a bassist in the bluegrass band Mile Twelve.
So how do you press fast-forward on your college years, and lighten your debt load in the process? A few tips:
1. Get on the Advanced Placement train.
Almost three million students took nearly five 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," suggests 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.
If courses are not offered in your area, a new philanthropic group called Modern States (modernstates.org) offers AP and CLEP courses online, for free, although you still have to pay fees to take the tests.
A caveat: Your desired college may not accept such advanced credits, so do the necessary research beforehand. Thankfully, more than 20 states now have policies that guarantee AP credits at public institutions.
2. Sign up for required courses immediately.
Most majors require a specific sequence of mandatory classes in order to graduate. Miss the signup 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," says Nancy Brenner, a New York City public relations professional who polished off her Brooklyn College degree in three years. "Otherwise you can't advance to the next level, and that is a critical mistake."
3. Prep for an early career.
If you are graduating ahead of time, "it is not like a magic light goes on and everyone knows about it," says Brenner. "No one even realizes you are graduating early."
So 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 laughs. "I used time to my advantage - and always made sure everything flowed together perfectly."