Steve Foerster earned 27 college credits for about $500, completing the equivalent of one year of higher education that would have cost more than $5,000 in a distance-learning program at a four-year university. Foerster completed up to six credits at a time by taking proctored tests similar to the final exams that traditional students take after three months of classes.
Excelsior College, a New York-based online institution, and educational content and assessment company Pearson launched a program this week aimed at increasing the number of students who have access to this more affordable "credit-by-examination" model.
The non-traditional avenue to a degree could prove increasingly popular as enrollments skyrocket, college classrooms fill up, and campuses embrace enrollment caps that leave many applicants on lengthy waiting lists.
It also could have enormous implications for colleges and universities, turning the traditional model of higher education–one in which campus officials are in charge of a student’s education–on its head.
The program, called UExcel, will be made available at 2,800 locations in 152 countries, said Randy Trask, a vice president of marketing development for Pearson, and each test will be accredited through Excelsior, which has administered credited tests since opening in 1971. All UExcel exams have been reviewed and approved by the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service.
UExcel tests will be taken at centers run by Pearson, which administers about 6 million exams annually, Trask said.
"I’m aware that there are traditionally minded people who believe there can only be one way" to earn college credit, said Foerster, 36, an adjunct professor of information technology at LCO Ojibwe Community College in Hayward, Wis.
"This was material that might have been challenging for a traditional-aged student but was relatively simple for an intellectually curious adult," Foerster said, adding that he was "entirely prepared" for graduate studies that year after reviewing and passing exams that granted college credits.
Students enrolled in the UExcel program will be granted credit hours if they get an A, B, or C on a proctored test, said Patrick Jones, Excelsior’s dean of assessments. The exam grade will be registered on the student’s official transcript, and those credit hours will be deemed acceptable to thousands of colleges and universities listed as cooperating institutions on the ACE web site.
"To them, it’ll look like any other class," said Trask, who added that the UExcel "sweet spot" will be freshman courses that could be a waste of time for adults who could test out of the introductory-level courses and begin regular lectures, homework assignments, and quizzes in intermediate classes.
Students must present a picture ID before taking an exam for credit at a Pearson center, and photographs of each student are taken and reviewed before a UExcel transcript is completed.
UExcel students pay $85 per exam, officials said. Last year, college students paid an average of $447 per credit hour at a public university, according to Department of Education statistics. That price jumps to more than $1,000 for each credit on private campuses.
Open courseware managed by some of the most esteemed universities in the world can play an important role in prepping students for credit-by-examination tests, Jones said.
Online course content made available free of charge by institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University (See, "Program goes beyond open course model") can be a studying tool for UExcel students hoping to brush up on introductory subjects before they take an exam at a Pearson testing center.
"We see credit-by-examination as a chance for individuals to take advantage" of free content such as syllabi, recorded lectures, and class readings, Jones said.
Foerster, who tracks the availability of free, web-based course material from respected campuses, said students might have to sift through pages of online resources to find lessons that apply to the credit-earning test they’re preparing for.
"Student may have to go through an awful lot of material to prepare," he said. "I think the tests are better suited for people who already have a broad understanding of the subject. … [Open courseware] isn’t perfectly designed for this."
William Stewart, Excelsior’s assistant vice president, said the credit-by-exam model also could save gas money for adult students who often make lengthy drives to and from campus to attend lectures covering material they’ve already learned.
"[Students] can instead spend that [commuting time] on studying independently for exams" that can earn them college credit, Stewart said.