1 Jul 2015

One February morning a few years ago, I stood in my son’s bedroom looking at his Apologia biology textbook. He had been diligently working his way chapter by chapter through the book, and I was preparing to quiz him on the vocabulary and end of chapter review questions. “This is such a thorough course,” I thought to myself. “It’s too bad that he’ll have to learn it all over again in a few years when he goes off to college.”

That’s when it hit me, like an “I coulda had a V-8” moment: this son was not heading in the direction of a math/science degree. He was clearly heading toward the liberal arts. Why should he have to repeat this same material at a college, at the cost of thousands of dollars and spend extra time in class? He could take a CLEP test!

I was familiar with the concept of CLEP tests since I had taken an educational psychology test many years ago in college. CLEP, which stands for College Level Examination Program, is an alternative way to earn college credits. Developed by the College Board, the same company that owns the SAT and AP exams, CLEP tests are accepted by more than 2,900 colleges and universities. They are ideally suited for individuals who have already learned college level material either by independent study, life experiences or military training. The thirty-three tests that are currently available cover a wide variety of subjects including history and the social sciences, composition and literature, science and mathematics, business and foreign languages.

The tests roughly correspond to the kinds of classes most colleges and universities require in their general education core curriculum taken by students in their first two years of college. Regardless of the student’s major, most colleges require some general English (composition as well as literature), math, science, history, social science and humanities/arts classes. CLEP offers five English options, four math, three science, four history and eight social science tests from which to choose. There are also five business and three foreign language CLEPs available.

How does this apply to you and your student? If, for example, as the administrator of your school, you require your students to study American government as part of their curriculum, they can study for you, fulfilling whatever reading, papers and exams you wish and then also take the American government CLEP. Each CLEP taken and passed (usually with a scaled score of fifty or better) can potentially earn the student three to twelve college credits. The student will have earned a transcript-worthy high school credit and college credit at the same time. If the student takes the CLEP test and does not earn the minimum passing score, all that has been lost (besides the potential emotional toll), is the $80 test fee plus any administrative charges added by your local testing center. When it comes time to submit the scores to your student’s college, you need only to request the passing scores to be sent, so the attempt will not be noted.

There is no stated minimum age to begin taking CLEP tests. I know of some middle school students who have already begun putting college credits in the bank. Additionally, the test results are good for twenty years, so even if your student chooses not to go to college right away, they are a long way from having their scores expire.

Colleges accept different CLEPs and grant varying numbers of credits. If your student is already in high school and has begun to narrow his college choices, check those college websites for their CLEP policy. NC State, for example, accepts only thirteen of the tests while UNC Charlotte accepts twenty-nine. Also, especially in the foreign language tests, a higher score can earn greater numbers of credits. At UNC Charlotte, a score of fifty on the French exam will earn the student six credits while a score of fifty-two will earn twelve.

The exams are offered at approximately 1,800 testing centers nationwide. Most community colleges and colleges aimed at the returning, adult student such as Strayer, University of Phoenix and Pfeiffer offer the tests. Administration fees vary, but are generally about $20 to $25. Registration can be made on-line at the College Board website or directly with the testing center. Either way, though, you’ll need to contact the testing for a testing appointment.

In addition to the CLEP website (https://clep.collegeboard.org/), I have found great help from a couple of other sites when selecting which exams to pursue and how to prepare. Two of the best are ClepPrep (http://clepprep.tripod.com/cleplessonplans/) and Free Clep Prep (http://www.free-clep-prep.com/index.html). ClepPrep is produced and owned by a homeschooling mom of four, two of whom have already graduated from college using credits by examination. She offers lesson/study plans and lots of practical advice. Free Clep Prep is operated by Justin who began earning credits by examination while in the military to gain his degree. One of the features I like best about this site is his purely subjective evaluation of the difficulty levels of the different tests. Both sites offer great insights and help on this journey.

So, how does all of this translate into a scholarship-like savings? Well, according to the College Board’s most recent figures, tuition/fees, room and board for in-state residents attending public universities runs about $19,000 per year and $40,000 for students at private schools.1 If you divide that by the ten classes (thirty credits) a freshman typically takes, each class averages $1,900 to $4,000. Therefore, for every three credits your student earns by CLEPping, he has given himself between $1,800 and $3,900 in scholarship money (after deducting the approximately $100 cost per CLEP).

If a student earns five classes worth of credits, he will have saved an entire semester’s expenses, opened up the option of taking lighter class loads and gained priority in class registration over others in his cohort. Even if the student earns fewer than a full semester’s worth of credits, it still allows him the potential for lighter class loads or completing a semester over a summer.

College credit by examination is an achievable and economical way to stretch the family budget and speed the student on their way to a college degree. And that son of mine who was taking biology? CLEP tests, along with some dual enrollment classes, allowed him to enter college as a second semester sophomore. He has had priority registration status, has been able to take more electives of interest and will complete his bachelor’s degree in three years, saving more than $30,000.