This year I completed my degree on the cheap with a distance learning school, opting out of many classes with college equivalency tests and life experience. I saved thousand by testing on knowledge that I learned in the years since I dropped out.
Why’d I do it?
- A bachelor’s degree is the new minimum standard for education. It’s equivalent to a high school degree a generation ago.
- A tight job market makes education on the resume even more important.
- According to a 2007 College Board Study, Education Pays, people with a bachelor’s degree earn over 60 percent more than those with only a high school diploma.
- Virtually all management positions require it.
The great thing about distance learning schools is that you can attend from anywhere in the world, though they’re likely to be much cheaper if you stay within your state. For example, for New Jersey residents, tuition at Thomas Edison State College is $1,390. It jumps to $2,520 for people living out of state, plus $40 more per class.
I chose Charter Oak State College in New Britain, Conn., because of its flexibility. Charter Oak offers a "concentration," as opposed to a major, which allowed me to take my credits and build an "Individualized Study" around my needs. With the help of my advisor, I chose classes that fit my current career needs and worked toward my degree.
How I Did It
I started out 36 credits short of completing my degree. I would have been 42 credits short, but Charter Oak gave me six credits for my three expired certifications (CCNA, CNE, MCP).
The first year I paid $3,343, for 12 semester credits/classes. I did the same the next year for a total of 24 semester credits. That still left me 12 credits short. I could have taken one more year at $3,343, or do something smarter (I was in college after all!).
I took Dantes Subject Standardized Test (DSST) and College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests. These are college equivalency exams that are administered at certified centers, such as your local community college. Each test is worth three credits, so for the $85 sitting fee, I saved $300 and didn’t have to take a sixteen week class. DSST offers 37 tests, including the three I took – Introduction to Computers, Management Information Systems and Technical Writing.
Beforehand, I studied the way I had for certifications years ago. I bought a book or two, surfed the web for clues, and took practice tests which I bought online for $5. Unlike vendor certifications, you can’t pony up another fee to retake DSST that day. You have to come back in six months, which could derail graduation timing and force you to study all those materials again. Bloggers have said they took some of these tests cold and easily passed. I didn’t want to take that chance. I even studied for Intro to Computers.
Still three credits short, I could have taken one more class in communications. However, I was able to opt out of it by getting a letter from a previous employer stating I’d made multiple presentations on the Palm Treo to groups of employees. That saved another sixteen weeks – and another $300.
So I got credit for expired certifications and good olÂ¿ life experience, and tested out of classes with DSST. It saved me about $5,000.
Lately, some distance learning schools have been in the news for lack of accreditation and shady recruiting practices. I made sure my school was as accredited as brick and mortar schools, and contacted former students to get references. Some of these folks went on to law schools and MBA programs. I also searched for complaints on the schools.
During the process, I leaned about college credit from tests and life experience. If I did this again, I would explore how all my experience might have applied to my concentration. I’m sure I could have wrung another $1,000 out of my life experience.
I didn’t expect the process to be as easy as it was. I’d quit school the first time because I was overwhelmed, which sounds absurd when you consider I was taking three classes that met two days a week. Work – that is real work, what they pay us for – is much harder.
Also, the perspective of real life made school fun this time around. Real work requires college level reading and writing – whether you’ve got the degree or not. So even though I’m now a college graduate, I don’t think I’m any smarter for having completed school. The main thing is: Now my resume is less likely to get dumped into the wrong stack.
If you have any specific questions, post a comment below, and I’ll get back to you.
— Dino Londis