Shortly after I published Hacking Higher Education, Part 1: How to Obtain an Accredited Undergraduate Degree in 1 Year for $4,000, Personal MBA Reader Mike Stankavich contacted me to share his experience with earning his bachelors degree in nine months. Mike’s story is a great example of the value of research and the benefits of taking advantage of available opportunities.
By way of introduction, Mike Stankavich is a programmer/analyst at a large high tech manufacturing company. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Hillsboro, Oregon. Mike blogs at http://mikestankavich.com.
Here’s Mike’s story about hacking higher education…
My interest in a bachelor’s degree was focused on the credential itself. I’m 44, married, and have two kids. I have a good career as a programmer/analyst at a large high tech manufacturing company. Many of my peers were surprised to hear that I did not have a degree. I didn’t feel like it was holding me back in my current position, but if I were to lose my job, it would be much easier to get another similar position with a degree. Also I had an interest in pursuing expat positions. There’s often a lot of competition for those slots, so I thought that an MBA or International Management degree would be a good differentiator. A bachelor’s degree is obviously a prerequisite for graduate school.
So I decided that I needed to get a bachelor’s degree as quickly and inexpensively as possible. One thing that I learned early on was that regional accreditation is critically important. National accreditation is far less respected and accepted. And any school without accreditation is probably some sort of diploma mill. I figured that proving what I already knew was the best approach. I chose a Business/Information Technology degree as it most closely matched my current profession. Most of the requirements are things that I have already learned on the job.
My employer offered educational planning through EduPlan, so I signed up. Their top recommendation was Excelsior. The Excelsior program seemed reasonable, but I wanted to know more. So I went out and did some digging on Google. One of the most useful sites that I found was bain4weeks.com. While the name obviously incorporates some optimistic assumptions and the site is buried in Google AdWord ads, it has a lot of useful information if you’re willing to dig for it. 123CollegeDegree.com is another site that’s quite similar to BAIn4Weeks.com. I also found the InstantCert Academy Forums to be helpful. I even signed up for their paid membership, but didn’t feel I received enough value to justify the cost.
As I dug deeper, I found that there are three colleges that offer similar programs. My key criteria that I considered for online degree completion programs were:
- Regional Accreditation
- Accept 100% transfer credit
- Wide range of credit equivalency offerings for industry certifications
- Credit by examination for college class offerings
- Credit for portfolio of life experience
As Josh mentioned earlier in this series, Excelsior College is a very good choice, and perhaps the best well known. They offer the largest selection of credit by examination options in the ECE program. The ECE exams are available at Pearson Vue test centers. Excelsior College is part of the State University of New York system.
Thomas Edison State College is part of the New Jersey state college system. Their costs and credit equivalency programs are quite similar to Excelsior. Their TECEP program doesn’t offer as many choices, and the tests are pencil and paper rather than computer based.
Charter Oak State College is another option that some students consider. I don’t know as much about their offerings, but their credit acceptance programs and their accreditation make them a viable alternative.
I chose between the three schools by taking the catalog page for the BSBA/IT degree from each college’s website, putting it into a spreadsheet, and matching it up to what I could do to get credit for each requirement. Thomas Edison State College matched up best – I figured that it would require one less class than Excelsior. Charter Oak didn’t offer an IT degree, so I dropped them from consideration.
It’s a good idea to apply and get accepted, but not actually enroll in the college of your choice until you are ready to start with the college’s tests, online coursework, or portfolio assessment. Enrollment fees are calendar based. No point in paying until you need to. You’ll need to be accepted so that when you have your CLEP results sent to the institution of your choice that they will add them to your file rather than ignoring or dumping them.
I wasn’t able to find a CLEP for every class, but I came close. I chose CLEPs wherever possible, as they are most widely available and least expensive. I was able to cover three gaps with the DANTES/DSST tests. I picked up most of my concentration credit with Microsoft certifications, which offer very good credit equivalency. I was able to pick up two more classes with the Thomas Edison TECEP program. For the two of the three remaining classes that just didn’t have a test available, I chose the portfolio learning assessment, and for last subject I took the class online.
Once I selected TESC and had my roadmap all laid out, I started taking CLEPs in September 2007. I took tests one at a time for a while, then bunched a number of them together over a few vacation days. Over a four month period I got through all 18 CLEP tests on my roadmap without failing one. If I felt very comfortable with the subject, I just took the test. For subjects where I felt less confident, I bought the REA test guide from Amazon. I also started taking Microsoft certification exams and set up the DSST tests. I wasn’t able to find study guides for the DSSTs, but I was able to get through them by brushing up with general subject guides from my local used book store.
You can improve your success on computer based tests by keeping some basic techniques in mind. If you are not penalized for wrong answers, you should always guess. And process of elimination is very powerful. For the typical four-option multiple choice question, you will be right half the time if you can eliminate two choices. I passed every CLEP and DSST test the first try. I wish I could say that of the Microsoft tests as well, but no. Some of the tests were outside my area of core expertise and I didn’t study hard enough.
I bought the textbooks for the two TECEP courses and the online course from Amazon. The TECEP tests require a proctor, which you can find at a local college or public library. The reference librarian at my local library proctored my exams at no cost. I started the portfolio programs and that one online class in April 2008. Those wrapped up in June, so all that was left to do was wait for the diploma to come in the mail.
Be aware that your GPA may not be accepted by some graduate schools. With a few exceptions, you’ll get pass/fail credit rather than a letter grade. I ended up only getting one letter grade in my entire program, for the one subject for which I couldn’t track down an exam. I’m sure glad I got an A in that class :)
I ended up actively working on my degree for about nine months, then waited a couple more months for the diploma. So my experience was quite close to what Josh laid out in Part 1 of this series. It did cost me more than $4,000, but not a lot. When all was said and done, I spent just over $7,000. The biggest difference was the cost of Microsoft certification tests for MCSE, MCSD, and MCDBA certifications that I used for credit and tuition fees for the prior learning assessment and online courses.
In my case, an interesting thing happened as I finished up my degree: the expat goal became less important to me. I deferred my MBA goal for the foreseeable future in favor of targeted knowledge building as the need arises to support my career or business. Even though I haven’t yet derived a direct benefit from having the bachelor’s degree, I’m sure it will make a difference if I need to change jobs. And definitely feels good to have that gap in my qualifications closed.
I didn’t really feel like I covered very much new ground in the course of getting this degree. I saw it as proving that I was capable of performing and had an appropriate level of knowledge to justify the degree. But I did learn a few things along the way.
The most significant learning experience was completely unexpected. I chose to complete a portfolio of prior learning for Management Communications. I thought I’d just be able to spout some platitudes and basically ramble on for long enough to prove that I could write coherent sentences and paragraphs. The professor tossed it back in my lap twice, at which point I called him and discussed what he actually had in mind. It turned out that I misunderstood one of the core concepts that he wanted covered, so I had to rewrite about half of the paper. If I had just gotten out of my own way and actually attempted to understand the requirements and then contacted the professor to make sure I understood the parts that were unclear, it would have been far easier than just winging it and getting it wrong.
I still firmly believe that you’ll learn a lot more by targeted study in your chosen field of interest than from most degree programs. That is the core message of Personal MBA, which I agree with 100%, and that is what I did prior to completing my degree. But if the credential itself has intrinsic value to you, online degree completion programs are a viable way to get it done. If I do decide to revisit getting an MBA, I’ll definitely use an accelerated online program for that as well.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Mike!