A College Degree for Under 8 Grand in 12 Months?

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Last week at Freedom Is Groovy, we got into a rollicking debate over the value of a bachelor’s degree. I took the controversial position that a bachelor’s degree is a scam. And, of course, I got gently lambasted for this position. James over at Retirement Savvy and Vicki over at Make Smarter Decisions made some very compelling counter-arguments.

Did James, Vicki, and the rest of the pro-degree forces win the day? Yes, I begrudgingly admit. But I still maintain there’s got to be a better way. Education needn’t be synonymous with debt slavery (if the current financing model remains) or tax slavery (if college becomes a constitutional right).

So here’s the question I pondered after our bachelor’s degree debate: Is there any common ground between the degree-is-a-scam crowd and the degree-is-your-ticket-to-the-middle-class crowd? In other words, can someone in today’s America get a solid education—as defined by the vaunted BA—and not be saddled with a scary amount of debt?

Fortunately, the answer is YES. Let me introduce you to Ed Mills.

Ed Mills blogs over at the Millionaire Educator, and to say that he’s well-versed in personal finance would be a gross understatement. Get this: in 2015, Ed and his wife saved $106,250. And they’re public school teachers! In rural Georgia!

This dude rocks. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Ed has been featured on Rockstar Finance, and has appeared on numerous podcasts. My two favorite are his interviews with Joshua Sheets and the Mad Fientist. If you get a chance, check them out.

What I like most about Ed is twofold. First, he’s tenacious when it comes to debt avoidance. He firmly believes that debt is the number one destroyer of wealth. Second, he’s a big proponent of education. He’s acutely aware that your success in this world depends on the quality of your mind. If you hone your mind properly, you will do well.

So I reached out to Ed in an effort to bridge this chasm between the degree-is-a-scam crowd and the degree-is-a-savior crowd. Earlier this year, he had a post on how to get a bachelor’s degree for less than $7,500. It’s a tour de force—proving unequivocally that one can get a college education for a minimum investment in time and money—and Ed graciously allowed me to re-post it here. Enjoy.


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As a teacher, I value education to the utmost.  Over my lifetime, I have earned four degrees, learned a few languages, and read a ton of books.  In my eyes, obtaining knowledge is fun, motivating and life-changing.  However, these days I have a real problem with higher education and its runaway costs.  In its current form, higher education benefits academia, banks, and politicians while creating a generation of future debt slaves.

Over the last thirty years college tuition, room, and board have become insanely expensive. For example, in 1982, my freshman year, total costs at my alma mater were $7,700 a year, but today it costs a cool $60,000 a year…whiskey tango hotel!  To be fair, that horse-choking number represents the annual cost at a prestigious private college.  It’s also true that few students graduate with student loan debt over $100K, but I’d hate to start my working career with a $50k-75k anchor around my neck.

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Unfortunately, tuition rates at state universities aren’t that much better.  Most of the young teachers that I know are state universities graduates who have at least $20K-$50K of student loan debt.  Every time I hear those debt numbers my stomach hurts and my mind starts scheming of ways to earn a low-cost college degree.

This post will lay out what I would do if I were a member of the class of 2016 who couldn’t rebound, shoot jump hooks, or sport an awesome mullet.  I honestly believe it’s possible to earn an accredited undergraduate degree in about one year for under $7,500.  I know that might sound like crazy talk, but keep reading.

Degree Hacking Basics

Before I layout my degree hacking plan, we need to cover three basic questions:

What Is a College Degree Exactly? 

Simply put, a college degree is 120 hours of college credit.  Since most college courses are worth 3 semester credit hours, 40 courses would provide enough credit hours to complete a degree.  (120 credit hours / 3 credit hours = 40 courses)  Typically, a degree’s coursework consists of three components:  the academic core (60 hours), the major or area of concentration (30 hours), and electives (30 hours).  Finally, most degrees require at least a quarter of the coursework to beupper-level course credit (30 hours of the 120 total hours).  Here’s a chart for my visual learners:

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How Can You Hack College Courses? 

Are you sitting down?  Good, because here is the best kept secret in academia:  you can earn college credits via testing!  Of course, colleges prefer that you never learn of this option because it’s not in their best interest to have students graduating early.  The most common credit by exam options are:  CLEP and DSST.  As for credit hours, CLEP exams offer from 3 to 12 hours of credit while DSST exams are worth 3 credit hours each.  Both exams cost $80 per test and can be taken at testing centers around the world.  There is usually a $20 fee to take the exam, so budget $100 per exam.  This is a key point:  CLEP and DSST exams are vital to any degree hack.

Which Institutions Accept CLEP and DSST Credits?

While many university allow as many as 30 credit hours via testing, only three accredited institutions allow students to complete the majority of their degrees via testing:  Excelsior College, Charter Oak State College, and Thomas Edison State University.  In my case, I would use Excelsior College because they allow for the most credit-by-exam of the three schools.  If you are interested in hacking a college degree, you should download the course catalogs from all three of these universities and start planning your degree path.  (EC, COSC, TESU)

My Degree Hack: 

If I were a graduating high school senior today, I would pursue a B.S. in Liberal Studies from Excelsior College for two main reasons.  First, the degree is very flexible with only a few special requirements.  Second, the degree would allow me to take many courses that I could pass with little to no preparation.  For example, many of the academic core classes would be very similar to my high school classes:  American Literature, British Literature, Natural Sciences, etc.  By completing my “easy” courses first, I could devote more time to the more difficult subject areas.

My plan of attack towards a degree would have two phases.  The first phase would center on hammering the academic core, basically the first two years of college.  During the second phase of the plan, I would focus on the major, electives, and upper-level credits.  Here’s how I’d go about earning my degree:

Phase 1:  the Academic Core

In order to fulfill Excelsior’s academic core requirements, I would have to pass nine exams.  First, I would take the eight CLEP exams below to complete the majority of my academic core.  Second, I would take the English Composition exam from Excelsior College.  While the UExcel exam is more expensive at $480, the exam would fulfill the written English requirement.  Here’s how I’d earn my first two years of college:

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The cost for these nine courses yielding 60 credit hours would be a whopping $1,280!  Amazing, two years of college for $1,280…that works out to $640 a year or $320 a semester!

Phase 2:  Major and Electives

The B.S. in Liberal Studies does not have a formal “major” requirement.  Instead, it has two “depth requirements,” which are basically areas of emphasis.  Each area of emphasis should have at least 12 credit hours with 3 hours of upper-level credit.  In my degree quest, I would focus on courses in English and History. (At a minimum, I could become a middle school language arts and social studies teacher with this major, right?)  To complete my emphasis area in English, I would only need one upper-level English course since my academic core would already have 18 hours of English courses.  To fulfill the requirement I would take a correspondence course from Oklahoma University.

For my History emphasis area, I would take two CLEP exams for 6 credit hours and three DSST exams for 9 hours of upper-level credit.  That’s the plan for completing my “major;” it seems kinda easy, doesn’t it?  (Easy for me to say now that I’m no longer a partying 18-year old.)  The last step needed to complete the major requirements would be the online Capstone Course from Excelsior College. While it’s by far the most expensive course in my plan, it would be my only course actually taken from the college. I would gladly spend $1,530 to earn my degree via testing!

The final step of my degree hack would be to fulfill the requirements for upper-level credits and additional electives.  I would take  five DSST exams for the upper-level credits, and I would take two CLEP tests and one correspondence course from L.S.U. for the remaining electives.    The correspondence course would fulfill Excelsior College’s information literacy requirement, but it is currently on hold.  (If you know of any cost-effective course that could be used in lieu of the one at L.S.U., please send me a link.)

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If you’re not a linguist, don’t worry.  You could substitute four to six CLEP or DSST exams for the the French and German exams; taking this route would only add $200-$400 to the cost of your degree.  (I’m not sure how well I’d do on the French and German exams myself.)

Total Costs

The cost of completing the academic core, the major, and the electives comes to $4, 968.  Not too bad for an accredited undergraduate degree, right?  However, there is one more fee to add to the cost of the degree:  the Excelsior College enrollment fee of $2,185.  In my case, I would choose the “multi-source option” because it would allow me to transfer in the bulk of my degree credit.  When you add all the costs up, here is the final tally:

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Final Thoughts

That’s how I’d earn an inexpensive, accredited college degree within 12 months.  What do you think?  Could you use this information to perform your own degree hack?  If you know any high school students who might benefit from this post, please send them the link.  I would love to hear back from hundreds of debt-free, 18-year old college graduates, so please help me spread the word.  Finally, here is the spreadsheet I used to write this post.

May this degree hacking information help someone earn their degree, avoid debt, and live life to the fullest…there is more to life than servicing debt!

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33 Comments

  1. What about just going the Western Governors University route? I think it’s like $3,250 per 6 months….

    Could you not cram it all in one six month period?

    I considered doing that when I wanted to get into accounting, but I went back to work instead. 😀

  2. Mr. Groovy

    Excellent point. When I was 18-years-old, I certainly needed a good kick in the pants. In fact, I didn’t develop my self-motivation muscles until I was in my 30s. So a lot of young people definitely need structure. The key is to get that structure without going too much into debt. Thanks for stopping by, ZJ. I love your perspective on things.

  3. For a self-motivated student, this approach is excellent. So many people need a good stern talking to when they are joking around too much and not challenging themselves. I’m really grateful my nephew is starting via the CC route while working. No loans for him.

  4. I’m so excited to read this article & will be social sharing ASAP! This is how my wife earned her degree and wrote an e-book about it. It’s also one of the business sites we own (No College Debt).

    My degree at graduation in 2008 cost me $60K (I had $50k in student loans). Today it would cost me $100k for an in-state public Virginia university.

    My wife earned her degree through CLEP & DSST for about $7,500 as you mentioned. This method isn’t for everybody, but my degree was in Political Science.

    Even if I didn’t graduate with this method like my wife did, I want our children to at least CLEP their general classes.

    • Mr. Groovy

      I continuously shake my head at the cost of a bachelor’s degree today. A $100K? How much do adjuncts, blackboards, and chalk cost?

      Well, thankfully there are people like Ed Mills and your wife to show us that there’s a more affordable way to obtain the vaunted BA.

      Thanks for stopping by, Josh. I look forward to exploring No College Debt.

  5. Wow I didn’t realize that CLEP and DSST tests could be so useful, especially at those three universities. That’s pretty incredible to think about avoiding the huge cost of a college education. Thanks for making me aware of this possibility and loved the debate last week!

    • You’re welcome Green Swan…that’s why they pay me the big bucks! As my son goes through his high school courses, I plan on having him take the corresponding CLEP tests in order to bank college credits. For example, after taking U.S. History we’ll got to a local testing center and take the U.S. History I & II. That’s 6 credits (2 courses) for something every high school student studies. This is a much more efficient method the current model.

      Will he miss out on some great professors, fraternity parties, and college sporting events? Sure, but he’ll also miss out on the monthly payment slavery too. Plus, he could experience all of things above as an 18 year old graduate student.

  6. This is a great post Mr. Groovy! We are all about hacking the college credits any way we can. I did undergrad in 3 years and my daughter is graduating in 3 years too. My son thinks he may have it down to 2.5 (competitive – ain’t he??) College costs are out of control – no doubt and unless you have gobs of money, being smart about your major and how you pay for college has to be a number one priority. These abbreviated programs won’t work for all though – but if they fit your career interests – that’s terrific. Thanks for being our “rival” and always challenging us 🙂

    • Mr. Groovy

      It may not work for engineering but I think it’s tailor-made for computer science. Did you know Georgia Tech has a master’s degree program in computer science that costs less than $10K and is done completely on line?

    • I agree that my degree plan isn’t geared to a STEM or medical career. However, a student could attend college for a STEM degree as a “non-traditional” student. Then, you would take primarily STEM courses until you completed your degree. I enrolled in Georgia State University and took most of my Spanish courses as a non-traditional student. While I did not complete a degree in Spanish, I was able to earn my teacher certification using this method. Most importantly, I did not have to take any core courses since I already had an undergraduate degree. If you find a way to hack a STEM degree, let us know.

  7. Score a point to Team Groovy!! After taking serious heat last week, they come back on the offense with a great post about a way to buck (get the pun?) the system! Great comeback! Amazing post, the level of detail is first class. Way to prove that it can be done. I’m with James, there’s value in the degree. I’m also with The Groovy’s, there are creative ways to do it at a lower cost. After the first job, no one really cares where (or how) you went to college. Man, this is FUN!!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Yes, Ed saved me from complete and utter humiliation. I definitely owe him a few beers. His bachelor degree hack is one of the best I’ve ever read. And I agree wholeheartedly with your final point. After that first job no one gives a rip where you went to school. A cousin of mine went to North Adams in MA. Ever hear of it? It doesn’t even exist anymore. And he’s earning millions as an estate planner for wealthy clients of a major firm. And his staff all went to Ivy League schools.

    • Glad you liked the post. Aside from where you went to school, they also don’t care about your g.p.a. once you have a graduate degree. Get a “crappy” graduate degree, and “poof” your undergraduate folly is gone. Not that I would know about this. Okay, I do…I was a C student in college due to immaturity, beer, and hoops. Consequently, my transcript was a train wreck, but nothing a “subpar” graduate degree couldn’t fix. (However, I somehow managed to graduate college a quarter early in spite of myself. I guess I hacked a my degree before hacking became a concept!)

  8. I’d love to see the degree of prices eventually go down like they used to be back in the 60’s!

    Also, some degrees should be cheaper (arts, humanities)…

    • Mr. Groovy

      Amen, Lila. Some majors are more resource intensive than others. There’s no reason why a sociology degree should cost as much as a chemical engineering degree.

      • Yea Mr. Groovy, I compared the 2-year art degree at community college vs. the bachelor’s art degree at the public state college here in Omaha, NE.

        95% of the art classes at CC and Uni you have to take are pretty similar.

        Also on the bachelor’s you have to take general ed classes, but those can be done at community college.

        But compare the CC 2 year art degree at $4,000 vs. the Uni bachelor’s art degree at $40,000.

        Look even if I won the lottery, I’d still be all, “Um why would I pay $40,000 for a degree when I can go to community college and do it more modestly especially when the classes are mostly similar?”

        HUGE difference. It gets worse. In art specific colleges like RISD tuition is like $30,000+/year. Sometimes even more.

        The worst thing that most students that graduate from art-specific colleges like RISD, don’t end up working as artists.

        It’s because they don’t teach them how to market themselves, art specific colleges believe it’s their place to teach creative skills but not business skills.

        This totally makes me scratch my head. Because unless you get a degree where you can work in the corporate world like architecture, graphic design, then you are basically a freelancer after college.

        Anyway I decided to get a business degree at Uni and to study art at through art instruction websites, books, and through taking cc classes once in a while.

        Also, awhile back the WSJ reported that art majors are the most indebted (to student loans). Gee, I wonder why??!!!!

    • Lila,
      If you or a friend are looking for a cheap degree, the B.S. in Liberal Studies might be the answer because it is so malleable. Let’s face it, many courses in liberal arts and social sciences can be learned by reading books or watching educational programs. A CLEP or DSST tests is a pass-fail test; you don’t have to knock it out of the park, you just have to pass it. Earning such a degree in 1-2 years for under $10,000 would save a lot of young adults from monthly payment slavery.

        • Lila, now I know who you are! That was a great post. You have to love college catalogs if you want find CLEP information. Here’s an example at local college in Georgia:
          (check out page 46)
          http://www.abac.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Catalog-2016-17-Final-Document.pdf

          All the information is there, but how many students even read the course catalog? For some unknown reason, that was the first thing I did as a clueless undergraduate. Consequently, I always knew what classes I needed to graduate. Often times I knew more than my adviser, a professor who was swamped with teaching duties. Bottom line: read your course catalog people and know any and all credit alternatives available to you.

          I look forward to reading more of your blog. Ed

  9. This is really intriguing. I am hoping that my children attend some college, for the “experience” factor and especially if they’re involved in sports, but was trying to think of a way that they could just focus on studying subjects of personal interest or applicability to their long-term plans.

    I suppose that you could obtain some traditional credit from a college and then have it transferred to one of these colleges where you could earn the rest of your college credits through testing and obtain a degree.

    Only 12 more years until Goofball will be entering college!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey Harmony, I think Goofball will have a lot more options when he’s ready for college. The current business model is not sustainable. At some point students will have access to only the trade school aspect of college. Thanks for stopping by. Always love hearing from you. Say hello to Goofball for us!

    • Harmony, you’re on to something there. A student could take classes at a local college and then transfer the course credit later. I would suggest that most kids take their English composition courses at a community college because they need the writing practice. Plus, let’s face it, there is nothing that will improve your writing like a professor bleeding all over your paper. (Man, I dreaded getting those essays back from my professor, the head of the English department!)

      As long as you can score some inexpensive tuition, I say go for it and use the credits later for a degree. It sounds like you have time to figure something out for your Goofball. Good luck and enjoy him while he’s still young.

      • It could be the best solution, but hopefully the problem will be solved by then. I am doing my best to enjoy Goofball while he’s young, although it’s always important to think about the future too.

  10. Ah. So wonderful that two of my favorite thinkers have teamed up here. I do think there’s something to be said about earning more inexpensive degrees. I do worry, though, about sacrificing quality in the midst. This plan seems to take that into consideration. I also think that by being more flexible with our thinking, there are lots of opportunities available to us/future generations. I went to a school that was “beneath” my ACT score (what a stupid notion) simply because I came out above their average range. As a result, that private school paid for nearly my entire tuition. Many of my friends poo-pooed that decision because they wanted a more prestigious degree. Well, I knew at least three of them that ended up transferring into my college because it was one of the best-connected schools in terms of getting a teaching job. There are so many benefits to thinking outside the box. It is deeply concerning to me that secondary education (high school, specifically) doesn’t do more to expose kids to the alternatives.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Penny, you’re too kind. I’m just a little ‘ole country blogger. Excellent points, as usual. I particularly like the point about going to a “subpar” college. I’m glad some of your friends saw the light. Big name schools aren’t always the right fit.

    • Penny, my degree hack was tailored to my strengths and interests. There are obvious limits to a B.S. in Liberal Studies, but I would use the degree as a springboard to graduate school. I bet it would get me into an MAT program here in Georgia. With a few prerequisites, I could also get into an MBA program. Heck, I could probably finish all three of those programs before I turned 21! Could you imagine starting your career with a couple of degrees behind you?

      I also have experience with a few “subpar” colleges. While my undergraduate degree is from a prestigious school, my three graduate degrees are from lightly-regarded schools with high acceptance rates. But without a doubt, my degrees from my “inferior” schools sparked my career and earned me pay raises. As a result, I love “crappy colleges” and I’m skeptical of colleges charging loads of tuition. You’re right, people need to look outside the box (and quick!) if they are to earn a cost-effective degree. The current system is creating a class of indebted suckers. That’s no way to live your 20’s and 30’s people!

  11. Enjoyed our conversation/debate last week and enjoyed reading Ed’s thoughts. As someone that paid next to nothing for his two degrees (BS dual major: Communications Technology and Business Administration; and MBA w/specialization in management) and very little in working toward a third degree (Master of Science in Software Engineering), I made the most out of the opportunities afforded me by the Army, namely the G.I. Bill and the ability to take CLEP exams for free. Even though I didn’t apply all the earned credits – about 100 – I was able to apply quite a few to save time and money.

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record – as I often come back to the same summary when discussing the issue of higher education and the cost/debt – obtaining a degree (even with the numerous faults in the system) is still in the best interest of the vast majority of young people and it can be achieved without becoming a debt slave if the student and their parents wisely chart a course and consider all options (e.g. earning some credits while still in high school, community college the first two years, military service, CLEP exams, etc.).

    Any student/parents that blindly pursue a degree – which may not be the best field of study in a given business/economic environment – and insist on going to the ‘best’ available college for all four years … and decide to worry about the student loans and debt later is likely setting themselves up for disappointment.

    • Mr. Groovy

      James, you know I love challenging your keen intellect. I always learn something. I agree very much with your thoughts here. Your last paragraph nailed it. Kids and parents got to be very thoughtful with college costs. If they don’t do it right they can end up in a world of hurt. Thanks for stopping by, my friend.

    • James, congrats on avoiding student loan servitude. I agree that students and parents need to approach a college degree with a sharp eye on total costs. Once financing via student loans gets going controlling costs goes out the window. God forbid you find yourself with a financially weak degree and a ton of student loan debt. What a nightmare combo, but it’s commonplace these days.