“What’s the point of learning, if you don’t get a degree after?”
This has been the biggest criticism of my MIT Challenge , and honestly, it’s not an easy one to avoid. Even if weirdos like me are willing to learn a degree outside of school, the truth is the world still values that piece of paper. Unfortunately, until recently I’ve had little answer to this complaint–it seems if you want the degree, you have to suffer through an often slow and expensive process.
That was before I met Jay Cross. Jay in many ways did a project similar to mine–he completed a bachelor’s degree in less time, mostly through self-study. The only difference? Jay got a real degree for his efforts.
I asked Jay to write a guest post to share his method with you. Not only does it work, but it gets results in the real world as well. Jay has already had career opportunities that would be the envy of a lot of college grads, having staff writing positions for major publications and entrepreneurial ventures. Jay demonstrates that not only can self-education work, it can be a true alternative for many students hesitant about college.
The DIY Degree, by Jay Cross
Today, I’m going to show you a totally new twist on self-education.
We’ve long been told that learning is an “either/or” decision. You can either spend four years in college and earn a degree…OR study on your own with no degree to show for it. But what if you could have the best of both: the credential employers crave, with the speed, personalization and low cost of self-study?
Using the “degree-by-examination” approach, you can earn a bachelor’s degree by taking tests instead of classes. It works no matter where you live, lets you graduate in one year instead of four, and costs roughly 1/20th the price of a regular degree…with the exact same legitimacy and earning power.
The problem: society DOES still value degrees
Some jobs require degrees no matter how smart you are. Even in more flexible professions (like programming) there’s always one or two “By-The-Book Bob” types who reject non-grads on principle.
This concerned me, even with all I had accomplished already. If there was any way to graduate for minimal time and cost—and eliminate this potential obstacle—it seemed worthwhile to try. Of all the different approaches I researched and read about, degree-by-examination was the college shortcut that actually worked.
Before I explain, allow me to share the struggles that led me to this discovery in the first place.
My Struggle with the Traditional College System
Lots of people ask how I discovered the degree-by-examination approach I teach on my website, The Do-It-Yourself Degree .
The truth is, it was all an accident. If my college had not been so awful, I would’ve happily paid their fees and graduated the standard way. Instead, it was a classic “necessity is the mother of invention” scenario where circumstances forced me to think differently.
As a transfer student at the University of Connecticut, I needed 12 more classes to finish my degree. “I’ll be done in no time”, I thought. Boy, was I wrong! I soon discovered that UConn, for whatever reason, didn’t offer required classes for semesters at a time…with no notice of when they would return.
Confused and discouraged, I was left with only the hope of “someday” taking that Principles of Finance or Business Law class I needed. I was frozen in place: wanting to progress, but completely unable to. As someone who loves plans and schedules, it crushed my enthusiasm and made it very difficult to stay motivated.
Worse yet, UConn was expensive. I had been debt-free up until now and I wanted to keep it that way.
Each night, on my hour-long commute to school, I pressed myself: “what am I going to do about this?”
Sometimes it was too demoralizing to think about. I went through brief episodes of denial, telling myself I would “somehow” be able to pay without borrowing or “somehow” take the courses UConn wasn’t offering. It was all I could do for a few moments of relief in a hopeless situation.
The Solution: Degree-by-Examination
But when I came to my senses, I knew that was total BS. There was no “somehow.” Either I could afford it or I couldn’t. Either the classes were available or they weren’t. The gods of wish fulfillment were not going to munificently protect me from hard numbers or school policy. It was time to be brutally honest with myself. If I stayed at UConn, I’d pay a ton of money and probably wait two more years to graduate. What I needed was a solution: a realistic plan that acknowledged these obstacles and overcame them.
All options were on the table: alternative degree programs, different schools, even a new major, if that would help.
My quest started out pretty aimlessly. I Googled things like “get my degree faster” and “faster ways to get college credit”—anything that seemed relevant.
Most of what I found was totally worthless. Scams, diploma mills, shady online colleges and all the usual garbage that discouraged me from looking into this sooner. But persistence paid off, and a few weeks later I found an article by Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA .
Having read his excellent articles on entrepreneurship, I knew Josh wouldn’t even be writing without practical, real-world advice to share.
I was right.
What Josh explained is that you can “test out” of a degree just like you can test out of a class. Most schools won’t force you through a semester of College Algebra, for example, if a placement test says you’re ready for Pre-Calculus. It’s a great time-saver, but schools aren’t eager to tell you about it. They would rather you take College Algebra anyway, because you stay longer and spend more.
By using the approach Josh outlined, you can literally earn an entire degree this way. Instead of attending dozens of courses, you study on your own and take an exam for each subject. Rather than taking English 101, for instance, you take a 3-hour exam covering an entire semester of English material. Same goes for psychology, accounting, and the other required courses in your degree program.
No homework, no class attendance, no school bureaucracy or BS. My frustration melted away, replaced by surging confidence and the knowledge that a solution was at hand.
The exams are affordable—between $80-$200 apiece—and can be taken at virtually any college or testing center in the country. Study materials are available at websites like Free CLEP Prep  and InstantCert Academy .
Each exam is worth 3-12 credits (depending on the subject.) Once you pass enough exams to obtain a degree—typically 120 credits for a bachelor’s—you transfer them all to a distance learning school like Excelsior College. Although not famous, Excelsior is a legitimate, regionally accredited college, just like any state school or private university.
(Not everyone can accept the trade-off of saving years/tens of thousands of dollars by attending an unremarkable college. If you are one of them, check out my guest post  on I Will Teach You To Be Rich. It covers the psychology of putting effectiveness before ego—a core concept I teach my readers. And it just might change your mind!)
After paying Excelsior’s admissions/graduation fees, you become a graduate of that school and receive a genuine bachelor’s degree to proudly display on your resume.
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 average costs of degree-by-examination:
Best of all, degree-by-examination is totally self-managed. You study for the exams you want to take and take them when you are ready. If you fail one, you can take it again in 3-6 months and take others while you wait. No guessing games or waiting for the school to offer the subjects you need.
These schools aren’t new. Busy adults have been graduating from colleges like Excelsior with online courses for more than fifteen years. What IS new is the approach of earning your degree with exams instead of coursework. Most traditional colleges allow credit-by-examination as well, but with strict limits (for example, “maximum of 20 credits earned via examination.”) These limits help colleges force you to buy credits in the more expensive “classroom” format.
Yet unlike UConn (and most other schools) Excelsior has no exam limit. I simply transferred all the credits I had earned so far, took exams for the ones I still needed, and finished my bachelor’s degree in four months instead of two years.
How Can You Do the Same?
Josh’s article on “hacking” a college degree was superb, but there’s only so much territory one article can cover. It soon dawned on me that there were lots of details which would only become clear once I clarified them:
- Which exams should I take?
- What other types of exams are there besides CLEP?
- How are those other types of exams different from CLEP?
- Which order should I take them in?
- Who do I call?
- How do I enroll?
- How do I choose a degree program? There are literally dozens.
- What subjects/credits are required for my degree?
- How do I actually schedule my exams?
- How do I know for sure that they’re going to count toward MY degree requirements?
- Are there ways to earn credits quickly OTHER than exams?
- Once I pass an exam, how do I notify my school and make sure those credits get there?
- What if I fail an exam? Can I re-take it? Should I retake it? If so, when? If not, how do I earn credit for that subject?
- What’s the difference between upper and lower-level credit?
- How do I get upper-level credit? Most CLEP exams are for lower-level credit only.
- Which exams are graded and which are pass/fail? How does that affect my GPA?
- Does my school accept [exam here] for [course requirement here]?
- What about college courses I’ve already taken? Will the school I enroll in count those credits toward my degree? How many? Which ones?
- How do I track my progress?
- How long will all of this take?
I love research more than breathing and gleefully wrestled ALL of these answers from course advisors, articles and web forums. I spent sleepless nights learning how some guy shaved three months off his degree schedule or got an edge on an exam I was studying for. I found it intellectually challenging to treat this approach like an experiment and search for ways to optimize it.
Some of the answers I discovered were surprising. For instance, most people talk about CLEP exams , but there are actually several other exam formats available: DSST , TECEP , and Excelsior College Exams , for instance. This widely expands the range of subjects you can test out of. There are also non-exam options for earning credit, such as self-paced online math courses from ALEKS . (As someone terrified of math, this was a lifesaver!)
If you fail an exam, you aren’t doomed…but you will need to wait 3-6 months before re-taking it.
Want to graduate with a high GPA? I discovered that some exams are scored with letter grades, while others are “Pass/Fail.” This offers an incredible opportunity to be strategic: taking subjects you excel in for grades and subjects you’re bad at for “Pass/Fail.”
These are just some of the possibilities for customizing your own high-speed, low-cost bachelor’s degree.
Standing Out to Employers
My favorite part of the DIY Degree (beyond the cost, classroom avoidance, and completion time) is actually how it positions you to employers.
Put yourself in a hiring manager’s shoes. He or she has seen countless students come through their office with bachelor’s degrees.
Here’s the truth: if you graduate like everyone else does…you are a commodity. Unless you have other compelling items on your resume, you will not jump off the page and grab the hiring manager’s attention like you’ve been told a college degree would do for you.
Why is that? Why are degrees so taken for granted and unimpressive today? For one thing, there’s degree inflation . More people than ever having degrees makes yours less remarkable. But it’s also because the college experience ITSELF is now associated with sloth, partying, and immaturity.
The most recent example of this came from President Barack Obama. When someone asked what he would say to all the students who are struggling with student loans, Obama essentially said “I would encourage students to look more seriously at their studies instead of treating it like a 4-year party.”
If that’s what the President thinks, can you imagine how a hiring manager feels? They’ve hired dozens (maybe HUNDREDS) of college graduates. They aren’t going to be blown away by your standard-issue degree from XYZ State University.
On the other hand, someone who not only designed their own degree program from scratch, but also scheduled, financed, and passed anywhere from 20-40 challenging tests all on their own…THAT’S someone worth interviewing. You are effectively taking what has become a standard, “check the box” credential…and re-framing it as a unique competitive advantage.
Companies want independent problem-solvers, and while anyone can say they do that, earning an expensive four-year credential in ¼ of the time backs it up.
I see the DIY Degree as a “gap solution” for career advancement. Eventually, society will stop caring about credentials and focus more on targeted portfolios of an individual’s work. Until then, degree-by-examination offers a way to graduate without mortgaging your future in the process.
Jay Cross would like to share his DIY Degree system with you
If you want to learn more, Jay has created a free DIY Degree “Insider’s Kit” at his website.
Upon signing up, you will instantly receive:
- His 5-page “How To Test Out of Your Degree” report, which explains the time-saving DIY Degree process in ten simple steps
- His “Why DIY Degrees Make You Irresistible to Employers” MP3
- His best, most recent, and ultra-specific advice on college, careers, and getting ahead (which he never posts on the blog)
Click here to sign up  and get your Insider’s Kit instantly. The DIY Degree isn’t for everyone, but if time and cost are your biggest barriers to graduating, he wants to help you!
Side Note: Jay Cross put together this guest post, and while I endorse his website and methods, it’s not affiliated with my own. If you want more information about this, I recommend you use the sign-up link above to check it out!