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Think you know as much as a college graduate but never got a degree? More colleges and universities are giving you the chance to prove it — and to get that degree in the process.

A small but growing number of schools are letting students skip straight to final exams and earn academic credit in subjects they know well, often after years working in related fields. Some students can complete their bachelor’s degrees this way in a matter of months, usually online, and save thousands of dollars in the process by avoiding churning through superfluous courses covering material they already know.

fastest way to get a bachelor's degree
Graduates of Western Governors University. (Photo: Western Governors University)

Take Sara Jones, a 32-year-old court clerk in Tucson, Arizona, who went into the working world straight out of high school before finally deciding to go back to college to improve her chances of getting a promotion. “I heard from a supervisor that it would be advantageous, if I wanted to move up at all, to get a [bachelor’s] degree,” said Jones, who had an associate’s degree before starting at a Northern Arizona University program that let her cash in her experience for credit.

As in similar so-called competency-based programs, Northern Arizona lets students take exams to prove how much they know — enough, in Jones’s case, that she’s only nine months into the program and expects to finish by early next year.

Testing your way to a degree is not only faster than taking the conventional route. It’s much, much cheaper. Students pay a flat amount for a fixed period of time. At Northern Arizona, a six-month subscription costs $2,500, including all books and materials. That means Jones would pay a maximum of $7,500 to finish her degree, thousands less than most universities charge for traditional programs. “I’m not 100 percent sure I’ll use the degree, so it’s hard to talk myself into $40,000 to $60,000 in debt,” she said.

The idea was pioneered by Western Governors University, a nonprofit, online school founded in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors. The university offers six-month subscriptions for $3,000, a price that has not increased since 2008, said WGU President Robert Mendenhall.

The average WGU student is 37, Mendenhall said, and a handful have finished a bachelor’s degree in a single six-month period. Competency-based programs are perfect for older students who are daunted by the prospect of attending college for four or more years in order to advance their careers, he said.

“Frankly their jobs are either disappearing or they’re stuck in a job where they have no chance of advancement,” Mendenhall said. “We free students up to learn what they don’t know. It makes a lot of sense for people who have been in the work force and gained competencies.”

A flurry of activity has given older students more options for testing their way to degrees. Some have caveats, though.

WGU, for example, only accepts students who agree to attend full time. Southern New Hampshire University offers its competency-based bachelor’s programs only to employees of companies that have partnered with the school. It has about 55 partners so far, including McDonald’s, the Gap, and Panera, said Kristine Clerkin, executive director of the university’s College for America program, which costs $2,500 per year.

The trend toward competency-based degrees is a nod to economic realities, said Cathy Sandeen, vice president of educational attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education. Only a quarter of U.S. students, she said, follow the traditional college path: entering as freshmen immediately following high school and attending full-time until graduation.

A Georgetown University report estimated that 65 percent of U.S. jobs will require some college education by 2020 – and that the country will fall 5 million workers short of that.

“Right now you can see there is a gap,” Sandeen said. “We need to educate more people quickly. We have a large percentage of students in this country who are nontraditional students. Those students have needs.”

A range of universities offer competency-based programs. They include traditional nonprofit schools such as Northern Arizona, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Maryland, and for-profit universities such as Capella and Argosy.

Some schools are still figuring out how to match the programs with guidelines that allow students to use federal loans and scholarships. Regulators have been reluctant to give federal financial aid for such unconventional programs, though they’re starting to bend; students at Capella and Southern New Hampshire can now get government aid. For various complicated but different reasons, so can those at Northern Arizona.

Students should carefully look into programs that interest them, experts said, including whether the programs have been approved by regional accreditors and have knowledgeable professors on hand to offer help — and, if needed, whether federal financial aid is available.

A few calls to human resources departments will determine whether the online degree will be accepted by employers, said Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission, a Chicago-based accreditor.

“You’re going to want to know whether this degree is going to be recognized by the employers that interest you,” Manning said.

A few places you can test your way to a degree:

  • Northern Arizona University ($2,500 for six months)
  • Southern New Hampshire University ($2,500 per year; available only through certain employers)
  • Western Governors University ($3,000 for six months)
  • University of Wisconsin ($2,250 for three months; other tuition options available)
  • Capella University (contact school for tuition information)

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  1. Excelsior College (formerly Regents College) is a pioneer in the earning of credit by assessment. Growing out of the Regents Examination Program of New York State (where passage of the”Regents examination ” has been a condition of graduation since the 1800’s), this program precedes the The College Board’s CLEP exams by several years. Today it is possible to earn both associates and bachelors degrees in Business, liberal arts and nursing entirely by examination .

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