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Credit by Exam Degrees: Questions to Ask

Graduation CapEarning college degrees primarily through credit by examination, such as CLEP and DANTES tests, is an increasingly popular option for homeschoolers. Credit by exam (CBE) allows students to test in college level subjects while homeschooling high school. Some students seek to complete their entire college degree through CBE and online courses. There are a few regionally accredited colleges, such as Thomas Edison State University, which offer online degrees primarily through CLEP tests and online courses that do not require a student to ever set foot on campus.

While this option can be attractive to families who are concerned about college costs, there are a number of significant drawbacks and limitations to a degree earned primarily through testing. It is a better fit for some students than for others. Before you decide on this educational path, take the time to consider the following questions:

Question 1: Will I get a high quality education?
Studying for multiple choice tests is a very different experience from being in a classroom with lectures, discussion, readings, assignments, classmates, and a professor. CLEP tests are primarily equivalent to lower division college courses for first and second year students. The College Board doesn’t dictate that a particular curriculum be covered prior to taking the CLEP test. These introductory and survey level courses lack the richness and depth of upper level courses. Many of the popular methods encourage students to work through a series of tests as fast as possible. This can promote a “Cram and Dump” mentality where students don’t explore topics in depth but just prepare for tests. This may be unappealing to homeschoolers who first decided to homeschool for a high quality education.

Question 2: Does CBE work for my major?
Some major interests lend themselves more readily to CBE and online studies. Other fields require access to the resources of a college campus. Sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics require access to lab facilities that are not available to the home learner. Future teachers require group classroom experiences and student teaching opportunities. Fluency in a foreign language typically requires direct interaction with native speakers.

Question 3: What degree will I be earning?
Students interested in CBE should also look carefully at the degree they will be earning. As CLEP tests cover only a small range of typical university offerings, the degrees that can be awarded through CBE are also limited. Many of the degrees are general type of degrees lacking an emphasis on in-depth preparation for career or future study.
Make sure the degree you are planning is the standard one for employment in your chosen field. Some careers simply require an accredited college degree and any major will do. In this case a major like “Liberal Studies” will be fine. If, however, you are aiming for something specific such as nursing, engineering, or computer science, make sure the degree you are earning is the one that employers or graduate schools expect to see. For example, a Bachelor of Arts in biology is not the standard degree for premed and other science-capable students. A Bachelor of Science is more standard and most medical schools will not accept CLEP credits.

Question 4: Do I enjoy testing?
Credit by examination is not a good fit for students who are not strong with testing or who get anxious having credits all rest on a single test. It is likely a poor fit for a student with learning disabilities. It can also be a struggle for students who are not naturally self-motivated to work through material alone. As many homeschoolers discover in the teen years, it can be easier to maintain academic motivation with outside accountability and the support of a community of peers.

Question 5: What college am I interested in?
While CLEP credits can be an effective way to meet some general education requirements at some schools, students should check very carefully with the colleges in their area. There are colleges that take all 33 CLEPs, some that take none, and everything in between. Students should carefully check not just if the college accepts the CLEP for credit, but if the specific credits they offer will meet graduation requirements. Students may say “I earned 60 credits through CLEP” but earning these credits only shortens the time in college if the credits meet specific requirements of the college the student enrolls in. College requirements include general education or core courses, major requirements, and often requirements for the student’s division in the college (such as Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, etc.)

Question 6: Will CBE be less expensive?
Parents are understandably concerned about the cost of college. It is important to understand though that families do not all pay the same amount for a college education and list prices can be deceiving.

CBE degrees can run around $15,000 depending on the level of support services the student chooses and how many online courses are required for their degree. These costs include exam fees, books or tutoring the student purchases, and finally costs with the institution where the student earns their degree.  Most of these costs are not covered by financial aid even for students who are low income. For most learners CBE will be less expensive than a traditional four year degree, but this is not true for everyone.

Students with very high financial need may find that a traditional college is actually much less expensive than testing their way to a degree through CBE. There are some top tier colleges that are free to families who meet low to moderate income requirements. For example, for families with incomes under $65,000 a year Harvard charges nothing at all. Some other colleges have eliminated all loans for families that are low to moderate income and replaced these loans with grants or work study options. Students with exceptional academic merit should also research their options carefully. There are some four year universities that offer full scholarship packages that cover all costs (tuition, room, board, books, living stipend, funds for research or study abroad). These scholarships are available primarily to students with very high academic achievement. All families should take the time to investigate their student’s possible eligibility for financial and merit aid.

Question 7: Have I Looked Long Term?
While right now there are a handful of colleges that offer regionally accredited degrees primarily through CBE, there is no guarantee that these degree plans will continue to be offered forever. Students should study requirements very carefully and realize that these requirements may change in the coming years. It is unknown if these options will become more or less available in regionally accredited colleges.

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