Everyone knows the routine: your freshman year of college, you sign up for as many easy-A courses as you can. However, you may want to consider knocking out those entry-level courses through challenge testing, instead. Challenge testing can allow you to accelerate to higher-level learning, and you could save yourself thousands of dollars. In this article, we’ll go over how to test out of college courses and save money.
Credit by Examination: Testing Out of College Courses Explained
In many cases, you can test out of entry-level college courses if you already know the material. However, the process isn’t always as simple as it might sound.
There are several ways to “test out” of a college course and earn credits for prior learning. If you were enrolled in AP courses in high school and took AP tests for college credit, you’ve already done this.
Other methods of testing out of college courses include high school IB programs, CLEP, DSST, and college-specific prior learning assessment (PLA) and challenge testing processes. All of these forms of using testing to earn college credit are called credit-by-examination.
Testing Out Isn’t Always an Option
It’s important to note that not all colleges accept credit-by-examination of any type. If you want to know how to test out of college courses and save money at your college, you’ll need to speak with admissions or enrollment services.
Ask whether the course accepts credits from CLEP and UExcel. If the school does not accept credits from these programs, ask whether it has any in-house options for challenging or testing out of a course based on prior learning.
Testing Out and Financial Aid
Testing out of a college course may or may not affect your financial aid. For example, if you take a prior learning assessment offered by your college, it may be worth only one or two credits, while taking the full course would be worth four credits.
If this results in your dropping below full-time enrollment, you will lose your full-time status for financial aid benefits. Make sure you speak with your financial aid office if you plan on testing out of a college course.
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Benefits of Testing Out of College Courses
Why would you want to test out of a college course? Below are some of the benefits:
Make Better Use of Your Money
Whether you’re working your way through college, relying on grants and scholarships, or depending on student loans, you don’t want to pay more for college than you have to. A college course can range a great deal in cost, but the average price per credit hour is between $300 and $600. If your degree requires the standard 120 credits, that adds up, fast.
You can cut down costs by testing out of some of the courses you don’t particularly need, based on your prior learning. The cost of testing out of a course will generally cost about half as much.
Make Use of Your Prior Knowledge.
There are myriad ways to gain the skills and knowledge that are the focus of some college courses. If you’ve had a career that’s required you to learn the materials that are covered in a class, you may as well apply your prior knowledge. That way, you won’t feel like all that time you’ve already spent learning something was wasted.
Make Better Use of Your Time
College policies vary a great deal when it comes to testing out of courses. However, some schools will allow you to earn a full semester’s worth of credits by taking a test. Investing just two to three hours in a test at the beginning or end of the semester can save you approximately 15 hours of work time—per week!
Enjoy College More
Taking gen-ed courses in college—especially if you already know and understand the material—can feel like busy-work. Instead of feeling bored with your college courses, you could take more exciting courses that hold your attention and help you feel invested in learning.
Depending on how many courses you’re able to test out of (your college may limit the number of credits you can earn through testing), you may be able to cut down your time to earn a degree by as much as a full year.
How Can You Test Out of College Courses?
If you want to apply prior learning from your career or previous courses to test out of required college credits, how can you do so? Here are the standard ways in which you can test out of college courses.
1. AP and IB Testing
If you’re still in high school, this option is for you. International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs offer testing at the end of each term that can earn you college credits. This is your first opportunity to “test out” of entry-level college classes, and you can even complete your first year of college this way.
While AP and IB testing can be costly (about $94 per AP test and up to $119 per IB exam), your high school may offer financial aid and a fee-waiver program.
If you’ve graduated from high school but you took AP or IB testing, make sure your credits have been applied to your transcript. You can do this by speaking to your college’s admissions office once you’ve been accepted.
The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) is offered by College Board—the same not-for-profit organization that hosts the SATs and PSATs, as well as high-school AP testing programs.
Students from all ages and backgrounds can use CLEP to demonstrate their knowledge in intro-level college classes to earn credits. There are 34 CLEP exams that you can take to test out of college courses, in the following topics:
Composition and Literature
History and Social Sciences
Science and Math
The cost for each CLEP exam is $89, but you may qualify for free courses if you’re a military service member.
Individual colleges decide if and how they apply CLEP scores for credit. CLEP is currently accepted at 2,900 colleges and universities.
The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) provides no-cost education programs for U.S. military members. If you’re a military member and you’ve participated in Voluntary Education (VolEd), you can use the knowledge you gained to test out of entry-level college courses.
You’ll do this through a program called DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DSST). There are 38 subjects available within DSST, in the following topics:
The best part of DSST is that it’s entirely free for military personnel, U.S. Coast Guard spouses, and Air Force Civil Service employees.
Military members can also take the CLEP exams at no cost.
4. Excelsior College Exam
Excelsior College offers a credit-by-examination program called UExcel. Credits earned via the UExcel program can be applied to a degree program with Excelsior College, or you can transfer the credits out to another school.
UExcel allows you to take individual credit-by-examination tests or sign up for a package option. Topics available for testing through UExcel include:
Business and Technology
Natural Science and Math
Social Sciences and History
As with all other types of credit-by-examination, you’ll have to check if your school accepts credits from UExcel testing. You can search for your college on this list, but you should also confirm with your admissions office.
5. College-Specific Challenge Processes
Even if your college does not accept CLEP or UExcel credits-by-examination, it’s still worth checking with the enrollment department about whether the college has its own system.
As mentioned, not all colleges view credit-by-examination equally. Some may allow you to test out of an entire course for full credit, while others may only allow you to earn partial credit for the course.
When you’re considering whether or not the credit-by-examination options offered by your school are worthwhile, compare the amount of time and money you’ll spend to the return you’ll receive.
If you’re spending half the amount of money to test out of the course, but you’re receiving less than half the number of credits, it may not be the best option.
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Can You Test Out of a College Degree?
We’ve gone over how to test out of college courses and save money. But what if you could test out of your entire degree? Just as credit-by-examination can save you time and financial investment, so can degree-by-examination.
Instead of testing out of just a few credit requirements, you can potentially earn all of the credits required for your degree through testing alone. Instead of taking four years to complete a bachelor’s degree on-campus, you could spend just a year earning your degree independently. This would involve taking 20 to 40 lengthy and challenging tests, and paying for each test (most likely with private loans or out of pocket).
What’s the catch? Most schools greatly restrict the number of credits you can test out of to around 25% of your degree program. If you need 120 credits to graduate, you’ll only be able to test out of about 30 or 40 at most. There are some exceptions, including accredited online-colleges like Excelsior College.
Example of How to Test Out of College Courses and Save Money
Let’s look at an example of the benefits of testing out of college courses:
A traditional required course at your university is 12 weeks long, with an average of 15 hours of work per week. It costs $400 per credit. The course is worth three credits, so it costs $1,200 in total.
Instead of taking the course, you could take a challenge exam that requires only 8 hours of study time to prepare. The test takes three hours to complete, and it costs $120 ($40 per credit).
In this case, the choice is clear: if you have the prior learning required to challenge the course and test out, you can save over $1000 and hours of in-class and out-of-class time. You can take a more interesting class instead, and you can work more quickly towards the completion of your degree.
However, not all schools will offer testing-out opportunities that are so clear-cut. Some may only let you test for a portion of the credits. In the example scenario, that would mean you take the challenge test, but you can only earn one credit from its completion. You would only have to pay $40, but you’d be missing out on the full number of credits you’d earn from taking the course.
How to Test Out of College Courses and Save Money: Start Early
Testing out of college courses is a useful—but highly-limited tool. Colleges differ significantly when it comes to what they do or do not offer in terms of challenge testing. If the school’s testing-out process is in-house only, the professor or instructor of the class will need time to prepare the testing materials and review your information.
Your best bet, if you have prior knowledge in a subject that you’d like to use to test out of a course, is to speak to enrollment well ahead of the term’s start date. The earlier you start the challenge-testing process with your school, the better.
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