Professional Education and Career Blog

How to Test Your Way to a College Degree and Avoid Class, Save Money, and Shorten the Time

manstudyMany students believe that the traditional route to a degree is the only one possible. Registering for a class, buying your books, attending lecture, turning in homework, and then hopefully at the end you get a few credits. Run that scenario over a few years, and you get a degree. However, what if you could cut down that time considerably… by up to 75%… and save a boatload of money as well?

Using a “degree by examination” approach, you can earn a degree by taking tests instead of having to take the entire class. In essence, you’re proving that you know the material, instead of having to go through the entire class. A small but growing number of schools are allowing students to skip directly to taking final exams and earn academic credit. This can be ideal for students who have years of professional experience in the subjects that they already know.

Not only can this be much faster, but students can save thousands of dollars in the process. For example, CLEP exams cost $80, and these multi-choice exams cover a full semester of material. If you pass, you get the same credits you would have earned in the classroom, except you didn’t need to spend months listening to a lecturer. Compare that to a typical course in college that cost $3,000 or more, and you can see the savings would add up quickly.

CLEP is accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities, and is proctored in over 1,800 test centers nationwide. They’re not the only one. Other options include DSST, Thomas Edison State College, and Excelsior College. Service members can find particularly good deals. Through the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) program, military members can take free exams. This program is available to civilian students as well for only $40 per exam.

These exams don’t have to be only in areas that you already know the material. For students that excel at independent study, it’s perfectly acceptable to study on your own – for free – and then take the exam at the end for the same college credit you would have earned had you gone through the entire class. You don’t necessarily even have to do it on your own. Many students for study groups for independent study, allowing people with similar goals to get together to study for the exams.

Of course, these exams are still final exams, just as you would get in a college course, and they aren’t necessarily easy. Few just walk in and immediately pass, even for subjects they know well. According to DANTES, the 2005 pass rate for the five CLEP general exams ranged for 28% to 59%. Generally this means that the test takers didn’t properly prepare themselves, which of course what the traditional classroom is designed to do.

Surprisingly, only a quarter of U.S. students follow the traditional college path of entering as a freshman immediately following high school and attending school full-time until graduation. It’s modern economic reality that has brought forth this trend of allowing competency-based degrees.

study2It’s rare that a student would be able to completely earn a degree through testing, so it’s important to make a plan to mix test-out credits with traditional classroom credits, and design a program that fits your skills and ultimate outcomes. A conversation with your school’s guidance counselors can help you make these decisions on what would work the best.

It should also be kept in mind that some subjects make a lot of sense to take in a traditional format, even if through some effort you could test out. Class discussions, professor knowledge, mentorships with the faculty, and networking are all valid reasons to use the traditional path and take advantage of its benefits.

But with college degree more and more seeming to be a prerequisite to career advancement, the idea of putting your experience to work for you can be a powerful tool. It can dramatically shorten the time and money needed to attain your education goals.