How to Get a College Degree for Less

With the average cost of a four-year degree tipping past $90,000 for in-state public colleges and nearing $180,000 for private colleges, many would-be students are priced out. Earlier this year the Michigan Legislature introduced a novel plan that would offer college-bound students free tuition in exchange for handing over to the state up to 4 percent of their post-graduation income. For each year spent in school, program participants would be obligated for five years of payments. A similar idea is floating around more than 20 other states.

While the Michigan plan sounds like a deal of sorts, there are cheaper ways to earn a college degree. With a hefty dose of self-discipline and resourcefulness, a Bachelor's degree may be within reach in a fraction of the usual time and at fraction of the going price.

Forget the Class Time.

One trick for earning a quick and inexpensive college degree is to test out by passing exams. High marks on tests associated with Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) high school courses often translate into college credits. It's also possible (but something of a secret) to fulfill the requirements for a degree simply by passing enough tests. Business, psychology, computer science, and other hands-off disciplines are best suited to this approach.

The two major college-credit testing programs are the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) and Dantes Subject Standardized Tests (DSST). The former was created by The College Board, the same organization that designs the AP and SAT tests; CLEP offers 33 exams in five subject areas (American government, composition and literature, science and mathematics, business, and world languages). DSST is geared towards active-duty military and their families but is open to anyone, and likewise offers more than 30 exams. Both CLEP and DSST tests are commonly administered at local community colleges and are computer-based, many with multiple-choice questions and some with an essay component. Some universities, the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also let students earn college credit through exams rather than taking traditional courses.

Testing your way towards a college degree isn't free, but it costs considerably less than the standard route. Depending on the test and test center, each exam costs $80-$150. You also have to budget for textbooks and study aids. Assuming your total outlay for each test hits $300-$400, that's far lower than the thousands of dollars you'd pay for the same three or four credits at a four-year college.

Do the Credits Count?

Hundreds of colleges and universities grant credit for CLEP and DSST exams, but most limit the amount. The vast majority also impose a residency requirement stipulating how many credits a student must earn on campus to be eligible for a degree. That said, Thomas Edison State College (Trenton, N.J.), Charter Oak State College (New Britain, Conn.), and Excelsior State College (Washington, D.C.), collectively known on related blogs as "The Big Three," don't restrict the amount of exam-only credits or impose residency requirements. All are regionally accredited at the highest level, and former exam-only students have reported earning post-graduate degrees at well-known universities.

Sounds Like a Lark.

Don't mistake this for a do-nothing degree. The tests are hard and reaching your end goal may be frustrated by rules and regulations. Many test-takers say they study for hours before each exam and not everyone passes on the first try. Still, students who manage to earn a college degree through the test-only route are typically well-disciplined and determined to finish quickly. Whereas the traditional college student spends a 13-week semester studying and completing assignments, people who take CLEP and DSST tests often study fulltime for one or two weeks and then take the exam.

Most test-takers rely on online study guides in addition to the standard textbook. The Research & Education Association sells CLEP test-prep courses for about $35 each. The InstantCert Academy sells monthly access to CLEP and DSST materials. Peterson's is another source of test-prep that users often recommend.

Before embarking down this road, have a clear plan for how you will complete the degree. If you expect to transfer credits to a four-year institution, research what's possible. College counselors may be unfamiliar with the process and each college treats the exams and credits according to its own dictates. For example, a CLEP algebra test may count towards Math 27 at one college, but Math 107 is required for the major and there's no commensurate CLEP test. So do your homework thoroughly.

The test administrators' websites and those of the colleges you're interested in should have some information. We also found two online forums filled with active discussions about this topic, as well as several success stores. Check out DegreeInfo.com and DegreeForum.net to learn more.

Louis DeNicola

Louis DeNicola is a freelance personal finance writer who specializes in credit, debt, and practical money-saving tips. He loves stacking savings opportunities to get amazing deals, traveling for free using credit card rewards, and teaching others how to do the same. Connect with Louis by visiting louisdenicola.com.

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