Earning College Credit by Competency-based Exams Gains Appeal

Online programs can be a great option for adults who have already learned course material through previous jobs or military experience, according to Devon Haynie of USnews.com, as the appeal of competency-based learning grows nationwide.

Pam Tate, president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, said that adult learners are expediting their educations by taking advantage of programs that award credit for prior learning. “Earning a degree does not always have to be a huge time or financial investment.”

For online learners, earn credit by exam can also be a particularly attractive option.

“It’s popular” among online students, says Bill Stewart, assistant vice president for Institutional Advancement at Excelsior College, which allows students to test out of class. “And some people use them to a significant degree and some people use them to fill in gaps in their requirements to meet their degree.”

Many colleges are already offering courses to students to earn credit. The College Level Examination Program (CLEP), which is administered through the college board, started giving students the option to earn credit for a range of courses in the late 1960s.

When students take one of the 33 CLEP tests, such as biology or American literature, they are first provided a list of information they should understand prior to taking the exam. It’s up to the student to track down study materials and prepare for the test, which costs about $80 plus a testing fee.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) established DSST, a standardized test process similar to CLEP. This option is also available at Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College and a handful of other schools that offer their own exams that enrolled students and others can take for credit.

The program allows students to take and pass a test to prove competence in a subject, and then use the resulting credits as they attempt to enroll in colleges and universities. The option allows students to bypass a traditional course for about $100, saving them hundreds or thousands of dollars on class fees.

Many colleges and universities will accept credit from CLEP, DSST and other similar programs, but not all will, they say. CLEP exams are the most widely accepted, according to Mark Singer, vice provost of the Center for Assessment and Learning at Thomas Edison State College.

Praise isn’t universal, though, as some educators have found differences between those who test out and those who engage in a full class. Becky Takeda-Tinker, president of Colorado State University — Global Campus, said that her school had disappointing results when it allowed students to test out of higher-level classes. She said that students who took a formal online course outperformed their counterparts who tested out of class.

The experiment left Tinker and other university leaders concerned about how the testing model would prepare students for the workplace. These days, the school only offers a limited number of beginner courses through which students can earn credit by exam. “We were very excited that this could lower the cost of education,” she says. “But it wasn’t as simple as we originally thought.”