Lessons Learned Graduating College in Under 2 Years

college

In 2002, I had a bet to make: A college degree. Remove social norms on the subject, the degree is a bet. Will I learn enough to live a better life than if I didn’t get the degree? Will I have the necessary skills from the experience to pay off my debts incurred? Will I actually use my skills after I finish paying off my debts? Am I prepared to be $100,000 in debt when I start my first ‘real’ job?

A lot of tough questions. I’m sure you know someone in your life that is still dealing with the bet they made years ago.

For me, it was scary to think about college. It was a bucket of unknowns, and I was going high diving into it. I ended up with an Associates and Bachelor of Science in New Media and Computer Graphics from Johnson & Wales University. I earned them both in just under 23 months for a total cost of under $5000. As far as I know, I’m the fastest to graduate college in the State of Rhode Island or the United States (although I have not researched this much). I did this in part because of my crippling fear of debt and also because I asked a ton of questions before I started my college journey and in my own way got everything I wanted from it.

So in less than two years I earned a degree from a great university for less than I made working minimum wage over one summer. We can argue about the time it took me to complete college and if that is a) healthy or b) right for anyone else, but I think we all can agree that the more undergraduates that complete their degree with little debt, the better.

I want to share just how I graduated in 23 months, after I share a bit about myself. I’ll tell you some of the best hacks you or your friends can use.

The Setup.

I was a bit of a rebellious kid who didn’t really love school. I was an “average” student at my school with a 3.4/4.0 GPA. Plenty smart (I thought), but I didn’t see the merit of playing the game of standardized testing. I did very well with Math, getting on the honors track, and because the school was so small, that meant I was also in honors English classes. Not necessarily by design, I graduated high school with four classes that counted for college credit. It was a total of $220 payable to the nearest Community College. If I didn’t have this base, I sure wouldn’t have been able to setup the ‘perfect storm’ it takes to speed through academia.

The College Experience.

When I arrived at my University in Rhode Island I was told that I wasn’t really a Freshman, but a transfer student. All new students had to meet with an Admissions Officer, but I was told I was in the right place. “Where should I go?” I asked, and was told to visit the Dean in the next room over. I introduced myself and asked her if this was right. She said it was right, I didn’t have to take two courses that new students had to take, and my first trimester opened up a bit to opportunity. I signed up for 14 credit hours (an amount my Valedictorian Brother and Sister said was about right) and told Dr. Ruth (no joke) that I’d come back after I got a 4.0.

J&W University is generally a student’s first or last choice. The student body is an interesting mix of kids who know exactly what they want to do in life and those that don’t have the slightest idea. I don’t want to say it was my last choice, but it was. My first choice was Oregon State University, where my brother went, but my application was denied when they ran my debit card like a credit card. Without payment, my early decision to enroll in the honors program was denied (not delayed or marked as needing payment, but denied). That letter came in the mail the same day that J&W offered me a scholarship. I’m not a huge fan of ‘everything happens for a reason’, but in the face of rejection and opportunity a teenager will always steer to opportunity. I decided that Rhode Island sounded like a nice enough change of pace from my rural Oregon upbringing.

The courses were, how do I say this politely, underwhelming. I was told that my High School was too tough and that my College experience would be easy. I should take it easy, my classmates said. You know, have a beer or something. If you know me, you know that I don’t relax.

After my first term, I marched into Dr. Ruth’s office with my 4.0 and said that I wanted to transfer colleges. This was far too easy, and I wasn’t challenged. I still remember her shrug and smile. “Well, you are not taking the maximum amount of allowed coursework and signed up for the easiest courses we offer, something that almost all Freshman do.”

“Well, how many credit hours can I sign up for?”

“In the computer system, 19. Because you are challenging me, I can write you off for 25.5.”

So I signed up for 25.5. Because of an error of how it handled a professional development class, the system let me sign up for 27 hours. “Hello Freshman, here is 27 hours of work to do, fit that and some sleep into somewhere.” I got on top of the semester and everything came together in a way I couldn’t have planned. All the classes I needed lined up and all the professors I had seemed to be alright with my shared attention span. On Monday and Thursday, I had a lunch and dinner break but was in class from 8am-10pm. On Tuesday and Thursday I had class from 8am until 3pm. Friday, Saturday and Sunday I was off of school, but I did work as a fine dining waiter in the evenings. I did yoga on Fridays and had a rigid study schedule that lined up one hour, Saturday night from 1am-2am, to go to a party. My schedule was packed without any room to spare. My fellow students saved me on multiple occasions reminding me of papers and quizzes. My instant messenger became a life line.

Spring was starting, and I received my report card for the last trimester. A 3.8. I marched into Dr. Ruth’s office (even while she was busy meeting with another student) and proudly highlighted all the A’s and A+’s. I was beaming. Her response?

“Anyone can do that, once.”

So I signed up for the spring semester. 25.5 credits. “Oh” she said, “you might want to look into CLEP”

CLEP is the easiest way to hack your college experience. It stands for College Level Entry Placement and is a ~50 question multiple choice test that will make you qualified to earn the credit hours for that class. Talk to anyone that graduated early, I can guarantee they took quite a few CLEP’s. Friday mornings became a bit of a Fight Club, with quite a few students showing up to test out of classes from Marketing 101 to Intro to Finance. The organization that runs the tests sells the study books and every bit of information you need to pass the test is in there. My bus commute became C.L.E.P. study time, and I passed 15 credit hours of tests in that spring term.

I was offered a job for the summer term that would pay for classes, so I took it. I earned 13.5 credit hours that summer and worked at a job in Admissions and Tours lying my ass off to overprotective parents and fell in love with a coworker.

I had 18 credits from my High School classes, 18 Fall, 27 Winter, 25.5 Spring, 13.5 summer, 9 from being a transfer student and 25.5 from CLEP A total of 136.5 credit hours for my Freshman year. I was buzzing. A meeting with an academic advisor has my credit hours placing me as a Senior.

There was a gasp there, by me and the advisor.

After my first year in college, I was a Senior. The first time I walked around college drunk I was completely sober looking at my transcript.

I needed to take 25.5 hours a term for one more year, and I was going to graduate. I kept on the same schedule and really tore through the classes. I was interested almost every hour of the day that year. Every class somehow managed to line up, and the few that didn’t I was able to challenge or take an internship for. I got a job updating the sports website late at night when the scores became available. The coaches would email me from the road, and I would be online from 8-midnight every night anyway. The perfect job for me.

I finished off with an internship my summer semester (A+’s) and got fired from my Admissions job after confiding my unwillingness to lie to perspective students to my boss. My schedule stayed just as aggressive and in the spring I walked graduating Summa Cum Lade (although later on was downgraded to Magma Cum Lade after my 3.8 GPA was found to be 3.79 after my final three A+’s grades posted). I still don’t know how that happened.

I bought champagne for my graduation party with a fake ID. I cooked a big meal for all my classmates that helped me (and you can sure bet they did) and got as drunk as I’d ever been on Graduation night. I woke up far from my apartment and was hungover enough to ask a police officer for a ride (which was denied).

I had a diploma in hand and just over $5000 in student loans. I asked my sister what I should do next and she suggested a move to Boulder, Colorado. “I think you would like it there,” she said to me, in what might have been the best advice of my life.

The Hacks.

  1. My degree sits in a bookshelf, in Oregon, and besides my parents has been unseen from the world. The first hack of College is figuring out that you may not need it. I’d hire an intellectually interested and honest person over someone burned out in debt with a big name College.
  2. If you don’t take CLEP exams you are wasting some time and money. Every college accepts them, even though they try to hide it. Mind you that you are missing classes, and perhaps brilliant professors. If your college experience is to experience every nook and cranny of coursework, don’t test out.
  3. Get to know and love the Admissions and Scheduling Department. I’d go into the Admissions Department weekly and steal coffee and peanuts when I had a spare 15 minutes. I was generally told to leave saying “those are for potential students.” I’d quip back that I was potentially coming back next year. Generally, the Admissions Department has strong ties with all of the Deans and can help you out if you have any problems by talking to the right person (which, exhaustingly enough, is generally the person with the biggest title, oh academia how I do not get you).

Without a strong relationship with Dr. Ruth (who left unannounced halfway through my Senior year and I have not been able to find out where she ended up, if you are out there I want to say thank you) I would have transferred to another University and spend four more years chasing a degree.

  1. Your network and habits are what you get out of College. If you give up one of those to do something I said, I would suggest you skip it. Even with all my coursework I was on the sailing team, debate team and almost helped lead an overthrow of the student run newspaper (after their idiotic vocal support of the start of the Iraq war). I was able to have a rich college experience by knowing what classes I could take and still enjoy life.
  2. Debt kills dreams, and if your college experience will put you under $100,000 you might just want to get an internship in your desired area of work. I paid off school in just over a year, and can’t imagine the choices I’d have to make if I had payments looming over me. Go onto LinkedIn and find some recent graduates from the University you want to go to and reach out. Ask them questions with positive leading statements (did you love it?). If they get back to you, that is a great sign. If they don’t, that is a giant red flag.
  3. Admissions departments lie. A lot. Ask some tough questions to the staff highest up on the totem pole. My school gloated about a 98% graduation rate but only sampled students that were on the schools donation list, for instance. Walk over to the financial aid office and ask the students waiting in line questions.
  4. Have fun. Sit in the front of class. Get to know your professors and fellow students. Learn. Love to learn.
  5. Have a blog. The best professional thing I’ve ever done is started this blog. Your name dot com. Write about what you love and help others by doing so. You don’t have to be amazing, especially at first, just clearly communicate what you find interesting and why.
  6. Never be afraid to email someone. From a blogger to a CEO if you find someone interesting send them a note. Write a post about them. Follow them on twitter. Again, love to learn.
  7. As with anything in life, be flexible and don’t take anything too seriously.
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