When our oldest turned sixteen, we enrolled him in CollegePlus (now Lumerit Scholar Unbound) to accelerate him to a college degree. We felt he was ready for college work, and he was, earning twelve college credits in his first six weeks of College Level Examination Program (CLEP) study (see CollegeBoard.org for information).
A large deciding factor in our approach to his college education was my concern about how we could put four children through college on one income. Fortunately, Mitchell (homeschooled from kindergarten to tenth grade at that point) was willing to be a guinea pig for our experiment. He completed requirements for his Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Thomas Edison State University (TESU) three months before his twentieth birthday, completing all courses in his major online.
This path-less-traveled has been exciting and amazing but sometimes stressful and bumpy. We now know this path is not for all of our children. Our second son is playing golf at a private Christian university this fall with a year of dual credit/community college under his belt. Our two youngest children (thirteen and eight) will likely pursue a hybrid college degree, perhaps earning some dual credit, CLEP or DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) credit before continuing to a brick-and-mortar school.
Our family’s experience and list of pros and cons may help you as you make this college decision with your students. Mitchell completed thirteen CLEP tests, seven DSST tests, one math course online through ALEKS.com, three online courses through CollegePlus and Belhaven University, and his final thirty-six credits online through TESU (New Jersey), all while living at home in Washington. All CLEP and DSST testing were done at Joint Base Ft. Lewis/McChord, south of Tacoma, Washington. CollegePlus provided biweekly mentoring calls and amazing online tools to plan his degree from the very beginning.
Pros of an Alternative College Path
Testing and online courses were easily managed around our son’s job, life, family, ministry, and mission trips. He worked at his own pace and did general education requirements in the order he wanted, particularly at the beginning. Family vacation? No problem. He just brought his laptop.
Mitchell’s degree cost considerably less than the traditional on-campus route. He lived at home and finished his BA debt free. Most CLEPs (three to six credits, depending on the test) cost $80 plus a $15 testing center fee (DSST costs are similar), so his first sixty-two credits were very inexpensive. When he enrolled in a university online, costs increased, but they were still less than living on campus.
Avoiding Negative Socialization
Much has been written about the warped value system of higher education in America. Our son avoided a lot of the anti-Christian and liberal bombardment of secular schools because he wasn’t steeped in it all day. His online courses were secular, though, so he was still being challenged in his thinking and exposed to other worldviews. He was able to replace a diversity requirement with a DSST Introduction to World Religions test, for example. Through CollegePlus, he also completed a social justice course, a worldview course, and a leadership course with Jeff Myers of Summit Ministries.
Good Fit for His Learning Style
Our son is a strong reader and a quick thinker. Extensive reading and studying on his own to prepare for testing worked for him. Mom served as a cattle prod to provide deadlines as necessary.
Extremely motivated students could complete college in two years this way. We were happy Mitchell finished under the four-year mark, considering that he began when he was sixteen and that he had golf tournaments, driver’s ed, growing up, and a lot more to do.
Christian Mentoring and Guidance
With excellent guidance from CollegePlus through the first two and a half years of the process, our son had no wasted or duplicate courses, and life/career/spiritual guidance was included. Extensive planning and mentoring early on helped make his path fairly direct, with just a few adjustments. His last year, he finished without CollegePlus’s assistance.
Mitchell’s BA from TESU will be viewed as valid when he applies for jobs or graduate school. He completed his final thirty-six credits (mostly his major) online through TESU, which also shows continuity.
Cons of an Alternative College Path
This nontraditional college path has a lot of moving parts. I would not attempt this route without mentoring and extensive guidance from a knowledgeable source.
Logistics were much more substantial than we anticipated. The nearest testing center was a forty-five-minute drive to a military base, with an average thirty-minute wait for a base pass each time plus testing time. As a minor, Mitchell couldn’t go to the base alone. We drove twenty-eight times for testing, which interrupted the other three kids’ schooling. One day it took an hour and a half to get a base pass; then he arrived too late for a test, so we had to schedule an additional day.
Since our son had multiple sources of college credit, he had very complicated transcripts, paperwork, and accounts that felt like a huge puzzle some days. His degree was even delayed three months because Prometric mistakenly sent the wrong transcript for his final DSST test and it wasn’t caught until he was in the graduation certification process.
Contact with peers and professors was limited, even in his major courses. Most of his friends moved away for college, which was difficult for him. Without a regular schedule, it was sometimes hard for him to stay motivated or focused.
Extensive Screen Time
Screen time is substantial in modern college settings, but the majority of our son’s studying, classwork, and testing was online, and that wasn’t always a positive. It was easy for him to wander into many hours on Facebook or YouTube, or even to play video games when he wasn’t feeling motivated. This compounded all the required hours online for courses and study to make for a lot of screen time.
Won’t Fit All Learning Styles, Personalities, or Majors
Our second son is a hands-on guy and isn’t interested in studying for CLEP tests. He learns better interacting with others in class. I know of an engineering student who did extensive CLEP testing but then planned to finish his final years at a school of his choice. Some schools do not accept all CLEPs (some don’t accept any) or require higher passing scores, so this route would take research and careful planning
Complicated for Student Athletes
If you have a student athlete, you may consider another route or do extensive research on whether CLEP credit will interfere with eligibility. With NCAA eligibility requirements, CLEP dual-credit will likely not count toward core courses required for high school.
Extra Hoops to Jump Through
Because alternative college paths are so different, we met with some resistance. At first, the military testing center didn’t understand what we were doing. Initially getting signed up for testing was a bit challenging. My son was usually the only teenager testing in a room full of uniformed military personnel. The testing staff soon got to know him on a first-name basis, however! At one point Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) had to intervene on our behalf because the testing center suddenly decided a public school counselor’s signature was required of homeschoolers before testing. They briefly blocked our access but later revised the form to allow parents to sign instead.
Because our son took courses from five different credit-granting sources, there was extra paperwork and time needed for transferring credits and waiting for them to be accepted. One time, a course he had enrolled for at TESU came up as a duplicate for something he had already completed under a different course title, so he had to do some quick rearranging.
When our son won a two-thousand-dollar scholarship, we had to frantically enroll him full-time at TESU for the fall semester before he was ready so he wouldn’t have to forfeit the scholarship. This threw his testing schedule off and set a clock ticking on his enrollment fee for TESU, paid one year at a time. We didn’t even bother with the financial aid application, because it wouldn’t work with his primarily part-time status.
Our insurance company didn’t consider our son a full-time student for a good student driver discount, even though he’d completed twenty-seven credits through TESU that calendar year with a 3.63 GPA. We had to jump through extra hoops and show evidence before they granted the discount.
We are living in an exceptional time when the traditional college path is now paralleled by many other possibilities. It was an amazing process and very exciting for our son to complete his BA at age nineteen. The world is now ahead of him. We would do it all again with him. To make the choice with your children, be sure to research all the possibilities, including mixing and matching testing, CLEPing, online courses, and dual credit.
Karen D. Koch and her husband, Monte, have been homeschooling their four kids (ages eight to twenty) for fifteen years. Karen sometimes blogs at www.homeschool411.com.