College Credit by Exam

Continuing the discussion of how to make online learning count towards actual degree credits, the ACE accreditation service I described yesterday provides colleges and universities the means to judge whether a course taken by one institution (or taken online) is equivalent to a course taken locally.

And as I mentioned in that posting, ACE approves both courses and certain exams, the passing of which can also “count” at one of the institutions that accept ACE credit recommendations.

The ACE approval list includes some of the most well known exam equivalence programs, including:

The most popular exams offered by these organizations fall into the category of “general education,” allowing students to get credit for subjects such as college algebra and calculus or English composition and literature by passing standardized exams, rather than attending a brick-and-mortar 101 class.

Between these major players and other credit-by-exam sources (such as the Digital Literacy exam I had accredited through ACE that I used as an example yesterday), there are actually a wide range of core/introductory, course-distribution and even major requirement courses that students can check off by passing an exam vs. sitting through the equivalent course at the institution in which they are enrolled.

Given that exam prices are a fraction of college tuition costs, credit by exam is a tempting option for students looking to save money by completing a four-year degree program in just three years or fewer.  And colleges are starting to work with students interested in exploring alternatives to four years of tuition-paid enrollment as a means to bring down the skyrocketing cost of higher ed.

Students considering this option should keep in mind that CLEP and other college equivalence exams are comparable to a challenging final exam that comes at the end of a well-taught course. So students need to prepare (ideally by actually learning the material vs. just cramming) through independent study or enrollment in an online class (with free learning options available from organizations like this one).

In theory, one could earn an entire degree by just taking exams (with some organizations offering to help you navigate your way through the thicket of who offers and who accepts what with regard to college credit).  But if you are interested in pursuing any option involving transfer credit, keep in mind that:

  • Not all colleges accept alternative forms of obtaining course credit (with some limiting the number of alternative credits that can count towards your degree)
  • While some organizations provide additional services to help you navigate turning an exam (or online course) into a credit towards your degree, students pursuing this route will likely need to exercise a bit of entrepreneurship in order to navigate systems and bureaucracies that can stand in the way of effectively pursing these options
  • And, sadly, some credit-by-exam (and other alternative education methods) are scams, which is why you should always look towards the ACE accreditation list (as well as monitor your choices on educational consumer sites like this one) to make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate institution (rather than a diploma mill ready to sell you a worthless piece of paper)

I should note that in terms of the MOOCs representing the bulk of courses I’ve been taking for my Degree of Freedom One Year BA, very few of them provide clear pathways towards earning a credit by exam.

For instance, as far as I know CLEP won’t be coming up with a test that will give me credit for the Kierkegaard class I’ve enrolled in the Fall for my major.  In fact, because almost all of the classes I’m taking are fairly focused in one discipline, credit by exam (which is most useful in getting core first-year requirements out of the way) really isn’t applicable if I chose to pursue the actual credit route.

But credit-by-exam does demonstrate an opening for getting more MOOC classes associated with genuine college credit (presuming some enterprising MOOC provider, exam developer or other entrepreneur can find a way to make this a viable option).

The availability of credit-by-exam also brings up the more philosophical question of: “What is college for?”

I’ve already mentioned the understandable desire by some students to shed years of tuition payments, but another reason to take care of core courses via exams (or other alternatives) is to allow students to spend their college years taking as many higher-level or specialty courses as they can.  For instance, a student who enters college with 101 level courses in English and math out of the way can immediately plunge into more in-depth subjects, allowing them to maximize what they gain out of their years in college (rather than minimize the number of years spent there).

Back when I was enrolled in my first (traditional) BA program, I asked my advisor if I could use AP credits to knock a semester off my four-year college experience.  To which he responded that I should be treating college as the one time in my life when I could indulge any interest, and thus should try to take as many courses as I could during my four years (rather than focus on what I could get away with not taking).

That’s advice I followed then, and seem to be continuing today.  So perhaps the credit-by-exam and MOOC phenomenon can be harnessed together to help students get what they really deserve from a college experience: the ability to indulge their interests and learn as much as possible (ideally in way that doesn’t come at the cost of decades of debt payments).

Next – Indepedent Educational Portfolios

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2 Responses to College Credit by Exam

  1. Robert McGuire April 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

    As a teacher, I agree with your teacher that students should try to follow the curriculum the faculty has judged is the best course for undergraduates and not worry about ways to opt out. Easy for me to say when I’m not the one impacted by costs that are out of control and institutional obstacles to getting the work done in four years. In the meantime those institutions should be able to give a straight answer about whether or not there are ways to opt out so they can make the decisions that are ultimately theirs to make. As it is, students get all kinds of mixed messages about what’s transferable, what they can test out of, what they can do over the summer at another institution, etc. You’re doing a service here trying to track down some of the answers. It’s just too bad this format is the clearest source of information.

  2. K Funk July 19, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    Perhaps it should be noted that universities typically offer departmental credit by examination (CBE). This may be limited to use in placement in a series with prerequisites, but still allows currently enrolled students to use their paid-for credit hours in areas of their own choice – essentially, gaining more electives and/or reducing total time. For example, when I returned as a non-traditional undergrad with foreign language requirements (I elected Spanish), I was advised to enroll in entry-level courses, as I’d been away from school, and also from a Spanish-language saturation environment, for several decades. However, shortly into the first semester, it became clear I’d misjudged. After testing, the dept gave me the choice of credit for all four semesters (2 yrs); I chose to skip ahead to the last course. At my school, there was no charge for the testing or credits received. I also tested out of general subjects via CLEP, while enrolled. I highly recommend capitalizing on these opportunities, both to conserve funds, and to direct one’s energies toward the subjects in which one is most interested. To conserve time, I also enrolled each summer, thus attending full-time year-round. Summer classes tended to be somewhat intense, but with smaller, more intimate (brick-and-mortar) attendance. This format, with limited classes per session, but more time spent, helped to focus learning for me.
    My questions, personally, relate to how this may occur in graduate level studies . . .
    I commend your efforts and encourage your further endeavours,

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