College is traditionally a four-year rite of passage for young adults; some even extend it to five years so they can double- or triple-major. But more and more students are finishing in three years.
And you can bet the economy is spurring this new generation of "quick studies."
Like a lot of college students, Kourtney Leuthold makes the most of her free time by studying between classes. As a junior at the University of Sioux Falls, she's taking a full load and then some.
"Sometimes 18, sometimes 19 a semester," Leuthold said. "In the summer, I've done a bunch of online credits. They're easy and I can still hold a full-time job and do online classes at night or something."
It may sound like a lot, but Leuthold is on a fast-track to graduation. She'll finish college in three years with a major in elementary education and her English Language Learner, or ELL, certificate.
"Usually it's a four-year program, and if you add ELL, that could add an extra semester, so it could be like four and a half," Leuthold said.
Condensing all that down to three years really hasn't been difficult for Leuthold. She came into college with 30 credits under her belt, thanks to dual credits she earned during high school.
"I came into USF, I called it my freshman year but really it was my sophomore year," Leuthold said.
She didn't pay for a single one of those early classes; her hometown school footed the bill. Once she realized she could complete an entire year for free, she focused on making it happen.
"Money is the only reason why. I mean, school's fun; it's just I need to get out and get working. I'm going to love being a teacher," Leuthold said.
Leuthold knew she wanted to study elementary ed, so she made a plan early on. Take only the classes she needs, enroll in summer school and earn as many credits as she could before ever arriving at USF.
Leuthold has a little more on her plate than the average student. Along with trying to finish in three years, she's also married.
"I was engaged to my high school sweetheart and I knew us living together we'd need to make different adjustments,” Leuthold said. “Starting a family you need to be more financially-savvy than if you're just going to college for four years."
Leuthold makes it look easy, but experts say not everyone can pull it off. First, students must be at a certain maturity level because finishing in three years takes a lot of hard work. Many times students sacrifice a social life for studying. And there's little room for students to change majors or switch schools because they run the risk of falling behind.
But money's a big motivator. Leuthold says she saved more than $29,000 by shaving a year off her college career at USF.
"I knew the economy was going bad, school was getting more and more expensive, and I chose a private school so that made it even more expensive," Leuthold said.
Despite her hard work, Leuthold says she's definitely had time for fun and friends, and she wouldn't trade her experience for a more traditional one.
"I'd do it again, it's for me,” Leuthold said. “Maybe not for everybody but it's for me."
Across the country, many colleges are actually developing programs that allow students to graduate in three years.