What if you didn’t need to spend years in a classroom or take out mortgage-sized loans to earn your degree?

What if you didn’t need to spend years in a classroom or take out mortgage-sized loans to earn your degree?

What if you could cut your graduation time by 75 percent—completing a bachelor’s degree in one year instead of four?

What if it had the same earning power as a regular degree?

And what if you were completely in charge of the process: graduating on your schedule no matter where you live?

You CAN do each and every one of those things.

Using the “degree-by-examination” approach, you can earn a bachelor’s degree by taking tests instead of classes. There’s no student debt: you pay as you go, and your degree will cost about 1/20th of what most students pay.

In effect, you can “test out” of college!

How Degree-By-Examination Works

Students have been conditioned to think courses are the only way to complete college, but this is a fallacy. Most colleges also permit you to earn credit via subject exams from organizations like CLEP (College Level Examination Program) and DSST (DANTES Subject Standardized Tests). CLEP exams are administered by College Board, the same organization responsible for the SATs. DSST was formerly offered only to the U.S. military, but later became available to civilians as well.

The idea behind these exams was that if you had already mastered English or Psychology or Accounting (as many professionals had) you could take a three-hour subject exam instead of a four-month class. And it would count toward your degree as normal.

At just $80-$100 apiece, these subject exams offer the highest ROI in all of higher education. Here’s a cost-per-credit analysis I assembled for my blog readers. The third row shows the costs of degree-by-examination:

Your alternative to college

Sources: CollegeBoard and DIY Degree

Despite the obvious benefits of these tests, most students never use them! For one thing, schools don’t go out of their way to advertise a massive cost reduction—they would rather sell you credits in the more expensive classroom format. That’s why many of us have never heard of credit-granting exams. And even those who do know tend to use them for only a handful of courses, not the majority of their degree.

Today, things have changed. More than 150 subject exams are now available to anyone who wants to graduate faster. With a little up-front planning (and a lot of studying!) students can finish college without ever stepping foot inside a classroom.

What’s The Catch?

In fact, there is one.

Most schools discourage this with strict residency requirements mandating you earn a specified number of credits on campus (instead of transferring them in). Out of a 120-credit bachelor’s degree, you may only be allowed to earn 30 or 40 via examination. Still a hefty savings… but not the ultimate education hack.

If you want to go the distance, a tiny handful of remote-learning schools (such as Excelsior College) have no residency requirement at all. Here, you can enroll in a degree program and complete it solely via test-taking. No, schools like Excelsior aren’t famous—but they are legitimate and regionally accredited. And effectiveness beats ego every time.

In addition to the huge savings, the degree-by-examination process is totally self-managed. You study for the exams you want to take and take them when you feel ready. If you fail an exam, you can take it again in 3-6 months and take others in the meantime. No guessing games or waiting for the school to offer the subjects you need.

Differentiating Your Degree

My favorite part of degree-by-examination isn’t the cost, classroom avoidance or completion time. It’s actually the way it positions you to employers.

Think about what starting and finishing this process says about you.

It means you not only designed your own degree program from scratch, but also scheduled, financed, and passed anywhere from 20-40 challenging tests with ZERO outside pushing.

Most people would never have the dedication to do this. Businesses want independent problem solvers, which is exactly what earning a four-year credential in one-quarter of the time (for pennies on the dollar) shows you are.

This approach isn’t for everyone. If you truly love in-person learning or collaborating with other students (or paying back loans), stick with traditional college. But if time and cost are your biggest barriers to graduating, degree-by-examination might be the answer.

What do you think of this approach, Brazenites? Is it a quality solution to the high cost of college?

Jay Cross runs The Do-It-Yourself Degree, where he teaches students how to graduate in record time via degree-by-examination. He also splits time between Connecticut and Tennessee and believes all of life’s major realizations occur on a mountain.


  1. Whitney Parker

    This is a really unique approach to college. Indeed, I wish I would have known about the option!

  2. Lila Lanham

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    This is really innovative and a new idea, I like this concept and the way it is carried out in so light and cool manner. I concur with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your future updates I’ve been meaning to read this and just never received a chance. It’s an issue that I’m quite interested in, I just started reading and I’m glad I did. You’re a excellent blogger, one of the greatest that I’ve seen. This blog unquestionably has some details on subject that I just wasn’t aware of. Thanks for bringing this things to light.
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  5. clarita

    this is not a new idea and has been around since the 70s.

    and for some degrees this is NOT AS SIMPLE as studying and doing a paper and pencil test.

    and sometimes THEIR work load is more than a community college classroom would be as well.

    • jcmets4112

      No one said it was easy. But it IS simple — the process is straightforward and works every time as long as you put in the work.

      The point isn’t to skate down easy street to an effortless degree, it’s to work faster, smarter, and more efficiently than most classroom-based settings will allow.

  6. jrandom421

    Great concept. really rough sledding, especially for anyone in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math.

    • jcmets4112

      For earning the entire degree via examination, yes. There aren’t exams for all of the technical subjects required in STEM degrees. That said, you can still test out of virtually all the “general education” requirements that all degrees share. Worth a look, at least.

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  8. Mike Ruff

    I took numerous CLEP and DANTES tests while I was in the Army. Now, it’s been a while since I was in college, but the ones I attended would only allow me to use 2 of those for credit towards my degree–that was their limit. I also have about 40 some credit hours from Study Tours, but was also limited to claiming two (6 credit hours) towards a degree.

    You’ll definitely want to ensure you find a degree-granting institution which will not limit such things (as mentioned in the article) BEFORE you spend the money and time on this.

    • jcmets4112

      It’s true that some colleges are more stingy than others about the number of exam-based credits they will allow. That is an outrage and a means of forcing students to earn credits in the ultra-expensive classroom format so the school makes more money.

      Students who are still choosing schools can research the exam credit allowances of different universities. Students currently attending schools with stingy policies can transfer to a better one and take their business elsewhere.

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  10. Darth__Vader

    It’s a great idea, but the educational establishment will never go along with it. There’s too much money in a traditional course of study.

    As a business owner who has stopped hiring kids fresh out of college because they don’t know a dang thing and whose quality of education I’m not able to independently verify, I like the idea of degree by examination. I can see the exam(s) for myself and better evaluate what the candidate is actually capable of performing.

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