As a teacher, I value education to the utmost. Over my lifetime, I have earned four degrees, learned a few languages, and read a ton of books. In my eyes, obtaining knowledge is fun, motivating and life-changing. However, these days I have a real problem with higher education and its runaway costs. In its current form, higher education benefits academia, banks, and politicians while creating a generation of future debt slaves.
Over the last thirty years college tuition, room, and board have become insanely expensive. For example, in 1982, my freshman year, total costs at my alma mater were $7,700 a year, but today it costs a cool $60,000 a year…whiskey tango hotel! To be fair, that horse-choking number represents the annual cost at a prestigious private college. It’s also true that few students graduate with student loan debt over $100K, but I’d hate to start my working career with a $50k-75k anchor around my neck.
Unfortunately, tuition rates at state universities aren’t that much better. Most of the young teachers that I know are state universities graduates who have at least $20K-$50K of student loan debt. Every time I hear those debt numbers my stomach hurts and my mind starts scheming of ways to earn a low-cost college degree.
This post will lay out what I would do if I were a member of the class of 2016 who couldn’t rebound, shoot jump hooks, or sport an awesome mullet. I honestly believe it’s possible to earn an accredited undergraduate degree in about one year for under $7,500. I know that might sound like crazy talk, but keep reading.
Here are the referral links for the credit cards we currently use:
Degree Hacking Basics
Before I layout my degree hacking plan, we need to cover three basic questions:
What Is a College Degree Exactly?
Simply put, a college degree is 120 hours of college credit. Since most college courses are worth 3 semester credit hours, 40 courses would provide enough credit hours to complete a degree. (120 credit hours / 3 credit hours = 40 courses) Typically, a degree’s coursework consists of three components: the academic core (60 hours), the major or area of concentration (30 hours), and electives (30 hours). Finally, most degrees require at least a quarter of the coursework to be upper-level course credit (30 hours of the 120 total hours). Here’s a chart for my visual learners:
|20 Courses||60 Credit Hrs|
|10 Courses||30 Credit Hrs|
|10 Courses||30 Credit Hrs|
|40 Courses||120 Credit Hrs|
How Can You Hack College Courses?
Are you sitting down? Good, because here is the best kept secret in academia: you can earn college credits via testing! Of course, colleges prefer that you never learn of this option because it’s not in their best interest to have students graduating early. The most common credit by exam options are: CLEP and DSST. As for credit hours, CLEP exams offer from 3 to 12 hours of credit while DSST exams are worth 3 credit hours each. Both exams cost $80 per test and can be taken at testing centers around the world. There is usually a $20 fee to take the exam, so budget $100 per exam. This is a key point: CLEP and DSST exams are vital to any degree hack.
Which Institutions Accept CLEP and DSST Credits?
While many university allow as many as 30 credit hours via testing, only three accredited institutions allow students to complete the majority of their degrees via testing: Excelsior College, Charter Oak State College, and Thomas Edison State University. In my case, I would use Excelsior College because they allow for the most credit-by-exam of the three schools. If you are interested in hacking a college degree, you should download the course catalogs from all three of these universities and start planning your degree path. (EC, COSC, TESU)
My Degree Hack:
If I were a graduating high school senior today, I would pursue a B.S. in Liberal Studies from Excelsior College for two main reasons. First, the degree is very flexible with only a few special requirements. Second, the degree would allow me to take many courses that I could pass with little to no preparation. For example, many of the academic core classes would be very similar to my high school classes: American Literature, British Literature, Natural Sciences, etc. By completing my “easy” courses first, I could devote more time to the more difficult subject areas.My plan of attack towards a degree would have two phases. The first phase would center on hammering the academic core, basically the first two years of college. During the second phase of the plan, I would focus on the major, electives, and upper-level credits. Here’s how I’d go about earning my degree:
Phase 1: the Academic Core
In order to fulfill Excelsior’s academic core requirements, I would have to pass nine exams. First, I would take the eight CLEP exams below to complete the majority of my academic core. Second, I would take the English Composition exam from Excelsior College. While the UExcel exam is more expensive at $480, the exam would fulfill the written English requirement. Here’s how I’d earn my first two years of college:
Credit Cost Resources
CLEP: Humanities 6 hrs $100 1, 2
CLEP: Social Science and History 6 hrs $100 1, 2
CLEP: Analyzing and Interpreting Literature 6 hrs $100 1
CLEP: American Literature 6 hrs $100 1, 2
CLEP: English Literature 6 hrs $100 1
CLEP: Natural Sciences 6 hrs $100 1
CLEP: College Mathematics 6 hrs $100 1
CLEP: Spanish 12 hrs $100 1, 2
UExcel English Composition 6 hrs $480 60 hrs $1,280
Phase 2: Major and Electives
The B.S. in Liberal Studies does not have a formal “major” requirement. Instead, it has two “depth requirements,” which are basically areas of emphasis. Each area of emphasis should have at least 12 credit hours with 3 hours of upper-level credit. In my degree quest, I would focus on courses in English and History. (At a minimum, I could become a middle school language arts and social studies teacher with this major, right?) To complete my emphasis area in English, I would only need one upper-level English course since my academic core would already have 18 hours of English courses. To fulfill the requirement I would take a correspondence course from Oklahoma University.For my History emphasis area, I would take two CLEP exams for 6 credit hours and three DSST exams for 9 hours of upper-level credit. That’s the plan for completing my “major;” it seems kinda easy, doesn’t it? (Easy for me to say now that I’m no longer a partying 18-year old.) The last step needed to complete the major requirements would be the online Capstone Course from Excelsior College. While it’s by far the most expensive course in my plan, it would be my only course actually taken from the college. I would gladly spend $1,530 to earn my degree via testing!The final step of my degree hack would be to fulfill the requirements for upper-level credits and additional electives. I would take five DSST exams for the upper-level credits, and I would take two CLEP tests and one correspondence course from L.S.U. for the remaining electives. The correspondence course would fulfill Excelsior College’s information literacy requirement, but it is currently on hold. (If you know of any cost-effective course that could be used in lieu of the one at L.S.U., please send me a link.)
OU: History of the English Language 3U hrs $758
18 hour CLEP exams in academic core 0 new hrs $0
Total Hours for Emphasis Area I: English 3 hrs $758
CLEP: U.S. History I 3 hrs $100
CLEP: U.S. History II 3 hrs $100
DSST: The Civil War and Reconstruction 3U hrs $100
DSST: A History of Vietnam War 3U hrs $100
DSST: Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union 3U hrs $100
Total Hours for Emphasis Area II: History 15 hrs $500
18 hrs $1,258
DSST: Ethics in America 3U hrs $100
DSST: Introduction to World Religions 3U hrs $100
DSST: Principals of Finance 3U hrs $100
DSST: Substance Abuse 3U hrs $100
DSST: Money and Banking 3U hrs $100
Excelsior College: Capstone Course 3U hrs $1,530
plus 12 hrs from Areas of Emphasis 12U hrs $0
30U hrs $2,030
CLEP: French Language 12 hrs $100
CLEP: German Language 12 hrs $100
Information Literacy Requirement 1 hr $200
25 hrs $400
61 hrs $3,688
The cost of completing the academic core, the major, and the electives comes to $4, 968. Not too bad for an accredited undergraduate degree, right? However, there is one more fee to add to the cost of the degree: the Excelsior College enrollment fee of $2,185. In my case, I would choose the “multi-source option” because it would allow me to transfer in the bulk of my degree credit. When you add all the costs up, here is the final tally:
60 Hrs $1,280
61 Hrs $3,688
That’s how I’d earn an inexpensive, accredited college degree within 12 months. What do you think? Could you use this information to perform your own degree hack? If you know any high school students who might benefit from this post, please send them the link. I would love to hear back from hundreds of debt-free, 18-year old college graduates, so please help me spread the word. Finally, here is the spreadsheet I used to write this post.May this degree hacking information help someone earn their degree, avoid debt, and live life to the fullest…there is more to life than servicing debt!Addendum #1
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This Post Has 27 Comments
Wow Ed, thanks for the post! I wish this post had been around when I was in high school.
I’m curious, would this hack work with a college bound HS student who already has some AP and concurrent enrollment credits? My Daughter has already completed 3 AP classes and is registered for 2 concurrent enrollment classes next year, and is planning on another 2-3 AP and CC classes her senior year. I’m just trying to help guide her as best I can.
Mrs. Hazlenut, your daughter sounds like potential degree hacker. By my calculations, her 10 courses should be worth 30 credit hours or one full academic year. She could certainly earn lots more credits via CLEP and DSST exams. I’ve only taken two exams: the CLEP History and Social Science exam and the DSST Personal Finance exam. I took both test “cold” and passed them both by a wide margin. Keep in mind that you only have to pass the test with roughly 50 correct answers out of 80. That is a very doable proposition for good college-prep student. Your daughter could start taking some CLEP tests this summer and begin banking her credits.
She could also check out the Excelsior College catalog and see if there is a “real” major that she could pursue. I focused on the B.S. in Liberal Studies just because it is so flexible. Let me know if she attempts to pull this off. Best of luck, thanks for reading, and I appreciate your patience! Ed
Very good read. I wish I knew this before I completed all of my degrees.
Mr. Don, join the club on that one. Truth be told, I would have ignored such info at 18 and had another beer or twelve. Oh well, live and learn…just spread the word to someone who might benefit from the post. Thanks for reading, Ed
A great read Ed. We should have all H.S. student read this. So important that they being thinking about cost, ROI on their degree and career path before they commit to any college.
Agreed Brian. Even thought the degree I proposed is pretty generic, at least it doesn’t break the bank either. The degree would provide a necessary credential for jobs requiring a college degree. It would also allow you to attend graduate school for more concentrated training / education. In my mind, there are a ton of reasons to hack a college degree. BTW, military guys have been this for years.
Thanks for reading and hope to see you again at FinCon. Ed
There’s another post for you! “Why hacking a college degree is a good idea” 🙂
Wow, that’s awesome.
Mark, I’m glad the post caught somebody’s eye. I’d love for a solid high school student take this example and run with it. The time, money, and energy saved with a degree hack would certainly make it worth doing. Thanks for stopping by, Ed
Wish I would have known this six years ago. I am so glad you’ve taken the time to research this! It can be a HUGE step in the right direction!
Thanks Candice, I threw this post together hoping to help a few students streamline their path to a college degree without becoming debt slaves. I would love to hear back from someone who actually pulled off such a degree hack. Thanks for reading and please spread the word to our friends in Echols County.
Interesting but I’d recommend mechanical, chemical or electrical engineering at a state school as a higher return on investment. My two engineer kids received free rides with decent, but not spectacular ACT scores because state schools are desperate to keep smart kids in state. Plus the starting pay blows away anything a liberal arts major is likely to find. The cost of the degree is a factor in success but learning something useful in the work world is an even bigger key to prosperity. I’m an engineer as well, and retired early after a career that paid me extremely well to do interesting and fun work.
I can’t argue with your plan using scholarships to pay the way. I avoided undergraduate students loans thanks to a basketball scholarship. I also agree with you that STEM majors deliver bigger paydays in addition to lots of stimulating work. If I were 18 years old today, I’d study information systems or engineering. Thanks for reading, Ed
Hey Ed, I’m glad somebody else is writing about this. My wife earned her college degree via this method from TESU & wrote an ebook about it.
We went to several curriculum fairs over the summer to talk about it as well.
As it is non-conventional we got a lot of people that looked at us as if we had three eyes. Seems like there is more receptive response here and hope your own family can utilize this method for at least some of their degree plan.
As someone who graduated from Excelsior at the non-traditional age of 49, I too wonder why more kids aren’t looking into this, especially for degrees that don’t require lab work.
I didn’t use testing as much as originally anticipated, partly due to the nature of my degree (had to renew expired computer info sys credits), and lack of suitable tests. But did manage to bag a semesters worth mostly thru DANTES and DSST, with little or no study (work/life experience really helps).
The flexibility was terrific, and permitted year round studies anywhere in the US (or even Athabasca University in Canada after they received Middle States accreditation). Surprisingly, I found courses to be very similar in pedagogy and requirements regardless of which part of the country the schools were located.
Curious though, for those wanting to go onto graduate studies, will prospective schools gag at a degree that used a lot of testing?
Steve, thanks for sharing your story and congrats on graduating. This option has flown under the radar for so long, but stories like yours will certainly get the attention of younger students. As for graduate school, I’d say it depends where you apply to. In the U.S. there are lots of good schools that seem ready to take on any students willing to do the work and pay the tuition. However, a degree via testing probably won’t get your into a top-tier graduate program. (I could be wrong on that.) Thanks for reading, Ed
I had no trouble getting admission to several good quality graduate programs, and enrolled into Columbus State University’s Applied Computer Science (entirely online). But didn’t finish due to subsequent employer’s workloads, and pending early-ish retirement. Liked the less theoretical orientation, and surprisingly modest cost.
Also found after more research that for software development, graduate education doesn’t appear to pay off much, at least in salary enhancement.
Anyone have any feedback on StraigherLine? It seems many colleges accept their courses.
Thanks for any info.
I don’t know much about them at this point.
Wow Ed! You’re what’s great about America… Sharing your wealth of knowledge…
God Bless my friend,
I hope that post helps someone avoid a life of Sallie Mae servitude. High education has gone nuts…don’t do it kids, run! Thanks for reading. Ed
Why do you have those core classes listed as being worth 6 credit hours each????? Am I dense or something? Because I’m pretty sure everything I’m finding lists them all as 3 credit hour courses….. did something change????
No you’re not dense! When I wrote the post, those eight CLEP tests listed in the academic core table were worth 6 credit hours each. I need to re-visit the information to see what has changed at Excelsior College. Happy New Year, Ed
Could you update this to reflect current credit values?
I’ll revisit this post when I re-boot the blog. Thanks for reading.
Hello, is this still viable from Excelsior College?
Excelsior College still has a BA in Liberal Arts that seems to be very flexible and malleable. Check it out here.