MONEY College

Degrees on the Cheap! Some Colleges Now Let You Pass a Test to Earn a B.A.

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A handful of schools are letting mid-career folks place out of classes based on exams testing their knowledge. For some, these programs offer a faster, cheaper way to a diploma.

Think you know as much as a college graduate but never got a degree? More colleges and universities are giving you the chance to prove it—and to get that degree in the process.

A small but growing number of schools are letting students skip straight to final exams and earn academic credit in subjects they know well, often from years working in related fields. Some students can complete their bachelor’s degrees this way in a matter of months, usually online, and save thousands of dollars in the process by avoiding superfluous courses covering material they already know.

Take Sara Jones, a 32-year-old court clerk in Tucson, Arizona, who went into the working world straight out of high school before finally deciding to go back to college to improve her chances at at promotion. “I heard from a supervisor that it would be advantageous, if I wanted to move up at all, to get a [bachelor’s] degree,” says Jones, who had an associate’s degree before starting at a Northern Arizona University program that let her cash in her experience for credit.

As in similar so-called competency-based programs, Northern Arizona lets students take exams to prove how much they know. Because she had the ability to test out of classes, Jones is only nine months into the program yet expects to finish by early next year.

Testing your way to a degree is not only faster than taking the conventional route. It’s much, much cheaper. Students in these programs pay a flat amount for a fixed period of time. At Northern Arizona, a six-month subscription costs $2,500, including all books and materials. That means Jones would pay a maximum of $7,500 to finish her degree, thousands less than most universities charge for traditional programs. “I’m not 100% sure I’ll use the degree, so it’s hard to talk myself into $40,000 to $60,000 in debt,” she says.

A growing trend

The idea for competency-based programs was pioneered by Western Governors University, a nonprofit, online school founded in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors. The university offers six-month subscriptions for $3,000, a price that has not increased since 2008, says WGU President Robert Mendenhall. A handful of students have finished a bachelor’s degree in a single six-month period, Mendenhall says.

Since WGU began offering the program, other schools have followed.

They include traditional nonprofit schools such as Northern Arizona University ($2,500 for six months), Southern New Hampshire University ($2,500 per year), and University of Wisconsin ($2,250 for three months; other tuition options available) as well as for-profit universities such as Capella and Argosy.

A growing need

The trend toward competency-based degrees is a nod to economic realities, said Cathy Sandeen, vice president for educational attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education. Only a quarter of U.S. students, she said, follow the traditional college path: entering as freshmen immediately following high school and attending full-time until graduation.

A Georgetown University report estimated that 65% of U.S. jobs will require some college education by 2020—and that the country will fall 5 million workers short of that.

“Right now you can see there is a gap,” Sandeen says. “We need to educate more people quickly. We have a large percentage of students in this country who are nontraditional students. Those students have needs.”

Competency-based programs are perfect for older students who are daunted by the prospect of attending college for four or more years in order to advance their careers, adds WGU’s Mendenhall. At that school, the average student is 37.

“Frankly their jobs are either disappearing or they’re stuck in a job where they have no chance of advancement,” Mendenhall says. “We free students up to learn what they don’t know. It makes a lot of sense for people who have been in the work force and gained competencies.”

But it’s not right for everyone

Thinking of taking advantage of one of these programs? Keep in mind that there are often some caveats.

WGU, for example, only accepts students who agree to attend full time.

Meanwhile, Southern New Hampshire University offers its competency-based bachelor’s programs only to employees of companies that have partnered with the school. It has about 55 partners so far, including McDonald’s, the Gap, and Panera, says Kristine Clerkin, executive director of the university’s College for America program.

Students should carefully look into programs that interest them, experts say, to see whether the curriculum has been approved by regional accreditors, whether they have knowledgeable professors on hand to offer help, and, if needed, whether federal financial aid is available.

Some schools are still figuring out how to match the programs with guidelines that allow students to use federal loans and scholarships. Regulators have been reluctant to give federal financial aid for such unconventional programs, though they’re starting to bend; students at Capella and Southern New Hampshire can now get government aid. So can those at Northern Arizona.

Most importantly, make a call to your human resources departments—and that of one or two other companies where you’d like to work, says Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission, a Chicago-based accreditor. “You’re going to want to know whether this degree is going to be recognized by the employers that interest you,” Manning said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

More stories from The Hechinger Report:

Veterans’ new battle: Getting credit for what they already know

What law schools can teach colleges about lowering tuition

Needing revenue, old universities open new campuses where the students are

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