If you’re going to college and you have a few entry-level courses to knock out of the way, you might want to consider taking a challenge exam instead.
In the simplest of terms, a challenge exam is like a high school AP test: It’s designed to assess whether a student understands the basic concepts that would be taught in a traditional college classroom.
If a student can achieve a predetermined score (generally established by the American Council on Education), the student can completely bypass their prerequisite courses and accelerate to a higher class level -- the end result being thousands of dollars worth of savings.
If we compare a traditional college course to a challenge exam, a student can conservatively save $313 per credit. The University of Washington, for instance, would require a 10- to 12-week curriculum at $343 per credit, or $1031 dollars per three-credit course. A challenge exam, on the other hand, can be prepped for in as few as two weeks and cost a total of $90 per three-credit course (or $30 per credit).
This is an insanely good option, right? Here’s how to get on board.
There are three prominent challenge exams to be aware of:
- The CLEP Exam, which is hosted by College Board.
- Excelsior College Examination/UExcel, which collaborates with Saylor.org.
- DSST Exam, which is hosted by the US Department of Defense.
The CLEP exam offers 33 exams and offers transfer credits to over 2,900 universities. Most of the exams are built around a semester-long curriculum, and they will test you on courses that are taught in your first two years of college. You can prep for each exam through a list of recommended textbooks and online resources.
The Excelsior College Examination allows students to transfer test credits into 2,500 accredited colleges across the United States. They work exclusively with Saylor.org, a nonprofit that offers over 270 free online courses. These courses are asynchronous programs that allow students to follow lectures prepared by an actual professor, but they’re set to the student’s own pace and convenience. At the culmination of the course, a student should be prepared to take the corresponding UExcel exam.
The DSST Exam offers 38 examinations and earns credits through the American Council on Education (ACE). DANTES will fund paper-based DSST testing for eligible service members and civilian examinees. Free test prep is available through Peterson’s DoD website and through the NKO, AKO, and MilitaryOneSource websites.
If we compare these three exam options, we see that CLEP prep provides online resources through College Board and is best suited for self-disciplined, autonomous study. If you’re a student who’s pretty comfortable with the material and can hunker down into a text book, this is a great option for you.
Excelsior takes it one step further by redirecting students to Open Online Courseware that is tailored to their specific, credit-bearing tests. This study method offers more dynamic ways to consume the material and tends to guide students through their studies. If you like video clips, quizzes, and interactive media, this is a good option for you.
DSST is specific to eligible service members and maximizes military benefits to help with continuing education. Unlike CLEP tests, DSST tests cover both higher- and lower-level credits and/or classes that a student might take outside their first two years of college. They are partnered with Pearson’s, a long-standing figure in education and test development with a proven success rate in test prep.
In the end, it’s really a matter of preference and eligibility. If you’re okay bypassing an intro-level course at your college and you have the discipline to learn the material provided through these online options, you could potentially save yourself thousands of dollars in tuition. Just be sure that your college accepts the credits offered through these test providers … cause that, my friends, would save you nothing.