01/14/2014 12:16 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2014

How I Saved $30K and Graduated 1.5 Years Early by "Testing Out"

I have always believed complaining about college was a waste of time.

No, tuition shouldn't be outpacing inflation. No, textbooks shouldn't cost $1,200 per year. And yes, employers should look at what each individual applicant brings to the table, rather than auto-rejecting everyone without a degree.

But here's why none of that is relevant to YOU:

  1. While it would be nice if these things weren't true, they most certainly are.
  2. These are all "macro-level" concerns. When you dwell on them, you are wasting precious energy on problems you have no control over. Maybe they would matter if you were King of College, capable of reforming everything tomorrow. Alas, there is no such person -- and even if there was, it probably wouldn't be you.

Internal vs. External Locus of Control in College

Higher education does need to be changed, but for right now, it is what it is. So if you want to get ahead, don't fantasize about the future. Instead, assume society will never fix college and find a better way to graduate!

Simple as this may seem, it triggered a powerful shift in my own academic career. Once I ignored all the irrelevant sociological issues, I focused on the micro-level question I could answer myself:

"How do I work WITHIN the system to earn MY degree, as fast as possible, and for the lowest cost?"

This all relates to the internal vs. external locus of control theory psychologists have discussed since the 1960s. People with an external locus of control believe outside forces determine their happiness, while those with an internal locus of control take responsibility for themselves.

What I am about to share with you is an "internal locus" approach to graduating quickly and affordably.

My Story: How UConn Forced Me To Think Differently

The question of how to finance one's education confronts everyone at a different time. For me, it was after transferring to the University of Connecticut to complete my bachelor's degree.

I had fought hard to remain debt-free until then. After all, despite what we're told, an education isn't "worth any price." It's an investment we can analyze with data.

If I took out loans, any new earnings would get eaten up by debt service for the next 10 years. And while UConn's annual tuition was not terrible compared to other schools, it was still more than I could personally afford.

Making matters worse, the school was insufferably bureaucratic to deal with. Courses that I needed to take were simply not offered for entire semesters and no one could say when they would be back.

The bottom line? It would likely take two more years to graduate... not because I was unwilling to work harder, but because my school was not designed for degree acceleration.

On top of that, my itemized, "out the door" cost (including fees, tuition, textbooks and commuting) would likely exceed $30,000.

How Credit By Exam Shaved 1.5 Years Off My Graduation Time

My frustration with UConn sparked a personal quest for the faster graduation strategy known as credit by examination, or "testing out."

Most students don't know this, but classes are not the only way to earn college credit.

Let's say you already possess a strong understanding of accounting (either from personal study or work experience.) At most colleges, you can sit for the Financial Accounting CLEP instead of taking the class.

This is a 3-hour multiple choice exam designed to test you on a semester's worth of knowledge. If you pass, you earn the same three credits you would have spent months in class for.

CLEP exams are developed by College Board (creators of the SAT) and administered at testing centers across America. Other credit-granting exam options include:

DSST (developed by ProMetric)
UExcel (developed by Excelsior College)
Thomas Edison State College (TECEP) exams.

The best part? These tests cost just $80-$200 each, compared to $3,000 and up for classes in the same subjects.

What I Did After Discovering This

As was typical of UConn, they put up another obstacle: no credit-by-exam allowed at all.

Most colleges do allow exam credits, but with limits: for instance, "no more than 45 credits from credit-by-examination." After that, the school's "residency requirements" force you to earn all remaining credits via course instruction.

So I ditched UConn and searched for legitimate, accredited colleges with more flexible credit policies. Soon I discovered Excelsior College, a distance learning school for independent learners.

Inspired and re-energized, I immediately matched all my remaining business courses to exams and mapped out a schedule for completion. Over the next few months, I took and passed a new test every 2-3 weeks.

Not even my frequent traveling derailed me. Since there are testing centers nationwide, I was able to sit for exams in Connecticut (my home state), Philadelphia, PA (where I often traveled for work), and Chattanooga, TN (where I visited friends from time to time.)

Total credits earned: 33
Total cost of all my exams: Around $1,200
Completion time: Under 6 months

At this point, some of you will undoubtedly say "but that isn't a brand-name college!" That's true, but I chose to ignore this objection for three reasons:

  1. Brand names, in college as in business, are intangible. I didn't know exactly how much oomph the word "UConn" would add to my resume, but I did know my student loan amortization schedule and how much it would handcuff me in the beginning of my career. No, thanks.
  2. Degrees are becoming commoditized "check the box" credentials. Nowadays, most employers just want to see that you have a degree at all. Your skills and work history matter far more than where you graduated, and as even some Ivy League grads will tell you, not even a prestigious degree carries you forever. It might get you in the door, but after a few years, you stop being the Harvard guy and just become Bob.
  3. Results beat haters. I was willing to take short-term heat from people about my non-branded degree because the results validated what I was doing. Thanks to this strategy, I (and not any lender) reap the rewards of my post-college earnings. And before long, the people who asked "why are you doing this" started saying "I wish I didn't have debt either."

Of course, not everyone needs to do what I did. If you want the brand name of your preferred college, you can test out of as many courses as they allow and still reap huge savings over sticker price. Every school decides for itself which exam formats to offer and how many tests you can take. Just search "credit by exam" to find your university's policy.

Why This Works: The Numbers Behind Credit By Exam

I encourage students to look not just at the cost of a semester or course (or worse, their yearly tuition) but also to calculate the cost per credit. Since credits are the building blocks of degrees -- and since there are many different ways to earn them -- this is the real measure of how economical your degree is.

Here's an analysis I calculated using College Board's nationwide average tuition data and the costs of taking $80 CLEP exams instead:


It's more profitable for the college if you buy credits in the expensive "classroom" format. That's why credit-by-exam is buried deep in your school's academic handbook, instead of proactively suggested to you at enrollment.

Luckily, now you know.

College IS what are you going to do?

In his book Visions of Reality, social thinker Greg Nyquist offers a blunt essay called Politics & The Weather. In it, he jokes that everyone complains about the weather but no one ever does anything about it. The punch line, of course, is that no one CAN do anything about it.

This is largely true, he says, of social issues. Yet so many of us seem to believe otherwise:

"Beyond a handful of people who have access to the levers of power, politics remains inaccessible to human control. For the average citizen, the government he lives under remains as uncontrollable as the weather. The only difference is that, whereas most people recognize they cannot control the weather, far too many live under the illusion that they can make a difference on the political stage."

Now ask yourself: as one student -- someone with little financial power, less political influence, and not even one contact in the controlling offices of higher education -- is complaining or arguing about college a productive use of your time?

Of course not, because you can't change it! What you can change is your approach. Think back to what I said earlier about internal vs. external locus of control.

If all you want is a cathartic release, maybe ranting in the comments will suffice. But if you want to graduate cost-effectively, you need to ignore the "big picture" and devise a personal strategy for doing so.

My point, by the way, is NOT that higher education is doomed. Movements like UnCollege are working hard to change the way society thinks about credentials, employment, and learning. But as even they will tell you, those efforts are going to take time.

Is college broken? Yes.

Now what are you going to do about it?

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