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


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