When Erick Dillard decided to earn his online bachelor's degree from Excelsior College back in 2002, he was working and raising two children.
He didn't have the luxury of going to school full-time, and he wanted to get his degree on his schedule.
The 48-year-old Army veteran decided to test out of some of his online course requirements. By the time he graduated, he'd saved thousands of dollars and received credit for 15 courses in his strategic communications degree, all without taking the official classes.
"I would come home and study all night and all evening," says Dillard, who sometimes completed two courses a month through credit by exam.
Earning a degree doesn't always have to be a huge time or financial investment. Increasingly, adult learners like Dillard are expediting their educations – and cutting costs – by taking advantage of programs that award credit for prior learning, says Pam Tate, president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
Earning credit by exam can be a great option for adults who have already learned the course material through previous jobs or military experience, experts say. And it can be a particularly attractive option for online learners, who enjoy flexibility and who are accustomed to a disciplined, self-guided approach to studying.
"It's popular" among online students, says Bill Stewart, assistant vice president for Institutional Advancement at Excelsior College, which allows students to test out of class. "And some people use them to a significant degree and some people use them to fill in gaps in their requirements to meet their degree."
[Discover the basics of an online course.]
The idea of testing out of college courses is not a new concept. The College Level Examination Program, administered through the College Board, started giving students the option to earn credit for a range of courses in the late 1960s.
When students take one of the 33 CLEP tests, such as biology or American literature, they are first provided a list of information they should understand prior to taking the exam. It's up to the student to track down study materials and prepare for the test, which costs about $80 plus a testing fee.
"We are noticing that some of the largest online universities, like Thomas Edison State College, have a very strong cohort of test-takers," says Suzanne McGurk, senior assessment manager at the College Board. "I think that really resonates with online learners who are used to doing things at their own pace."
Today, students can go through a process similar to CLEP through DSST, a standardized test process first established by the Department of Defense. The option is also available at Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College and a handful of other schools that offer their own exams that enrolled students and others can take for credit.
After students take and pass these tests, they can use them as credits they can attempt to transfer to other universities. The option allows students to bypass a traditional course for around $100, saving them hundreds or thousands of dollars on class fees.
Dillard, for example, estimates he saved somewhere between $3,000 to $5,000 through CLEP, DSST and using Excelsior's own exams.
"I would do it again in a heartbeat," he says.
Although earning credit through exams may seem like a great idea, experts suggest students do their research before signing up.
[Make a good impression in online classes.]
Many colleges and universities will accept credit from CLEP, DSST and other similar programs, but not all will, they say. CLEP exams are the most widely accepted, according to Mark Singer, vice provost of the Center for Assessment and Learning at Thomas Edison State College.
Students should also consider whether their own study habits make them a good candidate to test out of courses, experts say. Some students crave interaction with their classmates, for example, while others like their professors to recommend reading material.
Before pursuing credit by exam, students should also consider whether they would be better served by taking the formal class. Are there certain skills, such as public speaking or critical thinking, that students would miss developing if they tested out of a course?
[Explore job search tips for online students.]
Becky Takeda-Tinker, president of Colorado State University—Global Campus, says her school had disappointing results when it allowed students to test out of higher-level classes. Students who took a formal, online course outperformed their counterparts who tested out of class, she says.
The experiment left Tinker and other university leaders concerned about how the testing model would prepare students for the workplace. These days, the school only offers a limited number of beginner courses through which students can earn credit by exam.
"We were very excited that this could lower the cost of education," she says. "But it wasn't as simple as we originally thought."
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.