College Q&A: Can I Use Scholarships to Graduate Early?

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Q: “I’ve heard you can save money by taking summer classes to cut out a year of college. The problem is, most scholarships only count for a 'normal' school year. Are there any grants or programs that could help pay for these extra classes?" – Debbie, Indiana

A: Every year more colleges offer accelerated degree programs to help students complete a bachelor’s degree in three years. Even if the college doesn’t have a formal accelerated degree program, you may still be able to finish the degree sooner by taking a heavier load during the semester and by taking classes during the summer session.

However, you may find that the timing and availability of prerequisites may prevent you from finishing the degree as quickly as you would like. Ask about these accelerated degree programs when choosing a college.

Federal student aid is available for summer classes, provided that you take them at the same college you're enrolled in. Some colleges treat the summer session as a “header” of the next year and some treat it as a “trailer” for the current year. Some do both, splitting the summer session at July 1, which is the start date for the next award year for federal student aid purposes. This can affect annual loan limits. (If you take the summer classes at another college, check first whether the classes will be accepted for credit at your primary college. Also, the two colleges will need to coordinate the use of your federal student aid.)

The structure of the college’s academic year may also affect your ability to pursue an accelerated program. A college with a trimester or quarter system may make it easier to finish more quickly, since you can take courses year-round. Colleges with a semester system may not offer as many classes in the summer session.

A recent change in federal regulations allows colleges to award two Pell Grants in a single award year if the student is in an accelerated program where the student takes and passes more credits than in a typical academic year. This is referred to as “year-round Pell”.

Ask your college’s financial aid office about the availability of federal student aid for the summer session. Unfortunately, very few scholarships are available for use during a summer session.

An alternative is to pursue a double major. You won’t finish more quickly, but depending on how much the college charges for classes, you might be able to get two degrees for the price of one. Ask whether this is permitted. At some colleges if you finish the requirements for one degree first, you might lose student aid eligibility for the remaining semesters for the second degree. Certain types of financial aid are limited to the first bachelor’s degree only. You may need to delay taking the final classes for both degrees until your last semester.

—Mark Kantrowitz is president of MK Consulting Inc. and publisher of the FinAid.org and FastWeb.com. He has testified before Congress about student aid on several occasions and is on the editorial board of the Council on Law in Higher Education.

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