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How to Get Your Degree Faster

Updated on September 3, 2014


S you are possibly a high school student (or parent) looking for ways to save money on college, or a working adult researching on how to save time on changing their career path. May be you are trying to obtain further education in order to climb up the corporate ladder within your current organization. Perhaps you are an individual who is simply looking for a way to obtain a college degree by taking a less conventional approach. In this article, I discuss various yet interesting ways on how you can accelerate your time spent in college major establishments aren't discussing with you. These ways mainly involve going to a local community college before transferring to a 4 year institution, testing out of classes for credit (referred to as credit by examination programs), taking advantage of online classes (or solely online degree programs), or a mixture of the aforementioned.

Go to a local community college first

A lot of students entering college think of going straight to more expensive universities and colleges under the impression this will look better on their resume or otherwise place more priority on "living the college campus life" (in other words, party all the time). The truth is, going to the pricier institutions will not only take more time but will also burn a deeper hole in the pocket. A lot of the classes offered for undergraduate students (especially the entry level classes) are sometimes only offered once a year at colleges and universities (and the ones available at more specific times and dates). Also, 4 year colleges and universities tend to have stricter professors, as the students tend to be, well, only students who aren't working full-time jobs.

However, at community colleges there tends to be a wider availability for those classes and are often offered in the spring and fall semesters (sometimes even in the summer). Teachers at community colleges tend to be more lenient and understanding of students being unable to attend class here and there (not for people simply skipping all the time however). This is because community colleges have a larger adult student body with people looking to change careers (or seeking education for personal enrichment purposes). With this being said, sometimes students may not be challenged as much at community colleges and some students may complain about the lack of "college life" at their local community college.

On another note, having an associate's degree first before transferring to a university may qualify someone for entry level jobs in the career field they intend to pursue. There tends to be a better college social life by attending a 4 year college or university, although attending a community college first will result in someone getting their degree sooner (and with far less debt).

In this bar graph, the costs of attending for profit and public colleges for various degree levels (certificate, associate's, and bachelor's) are demonstrated.
In this bar graph, the costs of attending for profit and public colleges for various degree levels (certificate, associate's, and bachelor's) are demonstrated. | Source

Other ways to network, gain experience, education, etc.

Job shadow someone working in the field. Job shadowing (sometimes referred to as an externship) someone in the field enables potential future candidates to get an impression of what someone's typical work day looks like in a potential field. It is wise to job shadow at various places in order to get a real feel for the field in different environments. If you did something while job shadowing, you may be able to put this on you resume under education.

Become a volunteer. If possible, try to volunteer once a week on your own time at say a local hospital, animal shelter, or something relevant to your field of study. Relevant experience can be gained, therefore providing a hands-on feel as to whether or not a career is ideal. Volunteer work also showcases an individual's mature and helpful nature, and is often considered relevant work experience (usually not clinical experience however). This is because volunteers are often legally limited as to what duties they can fulfill at various facilities, especially at hospitals.

Participate in an internship. Internships (aka work-related learning experience) can be similar to volunteering in the sense that they may not be paid. However, internships are treated as a job because the intern is obligated to fulfill duties as if they were an employee. Because of interns being given more duties than volunteers, internships can be considered relevant experience (can be included as clinical experience when applying for an actual job within the field in the future).

Your career path is a marathon, not a sprint

Many prospective students look at entering baccalaureate degree programs (or beyond) because they believe they will get a great paying job within 4 years or so. Unless you have received previous college credit, it may actually take longer than 4 years to get a bachelor's degree (or over 2 years to get an associate's degree). Why not first get an associate's degree (or even a continuing education certificate), get an entry-level job within the field of interest, then go back to school down the road? This is for a few reasons:

  1. Gain relevant experience. If someone chooses to obtain a diploma or an associate's relevant to their career field, they may be more qualified to get an entry-level job in that field. As any recent graduate (or recently laid off) searching for a job has noticed, many employers prefer or even require previous experience. By gradually getting the more advanced degrees and working the entry level jobs requiring less education (and also less pay and such) in a relevant field, having gained the relevant experience earlier on will mold you into becoming a desirable candidate for more advanced positions down the road.

  2. More networking opportunities. Networking with employers, teachers, and employees working in the field is always recommended. Why? So employers know who you are and are thus more likely to hire you. By working entry level jobs relevant to the field and eventually going back to school in the meanwhile will enable employers and other employees to see if you are a good employee or not. What's more is that if you are say a pharmacy technician for a retail store, your employer may in fact reimburse you for a great deal of your schooling costs to pursue a career as a pharmacist. Obtaining a dream career should be considered a marathon with pit stops, not a long sprint with risk of getting burned out before reaching the end.

  3. Better pay while in school. Many college students are obligated to work while in school. Unfortunately, a lot of the times those jobs are either dead end or are otherwise exhausting and miserable, not to mention very underpaid. For example, if you're going to school to become a nurse, why not get a nurse aide certificate and work as a nurse's aide (or even a nursing unit secretary) while you are going to school? Going this route will gain you relevant experience, certainly a pay grade above the minimum wage, and will open the door to exploring other careers (should you end up deciding this field ultimately isn't for you).

  4. What if you end up hating that field with a burning passion? Many of us were asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?" when we were children. Some may have known what they always wanted to do (and are completely happy with their job down the road), while others take the route of either working a job they are either okay with and make decent money or make great money and are miserable. By going for a certificate/diploma or an associate's relevant to the field and working for a while, you will gain experience and see if this is really the field for you. This way, you won't leave school with a big hole in the pocket while being in despair for getting a Master's for something you apparently strongly dislike. It will also be easier to get into a different field (plan B) should plan A be a failure.

In the table below are some examples demonstrating the "pit stops" along one's career path marathon. Understand that the jobs listed in each category and the progression of jobs within each are merely examples (and not the only options with each associated degree). There tends to be multiple job possibilities with a particular degree, even though below one may be listed. This is for simplicity sakes to give you an idea of the concept being discussed here!

(click column header to sort results)
Field of Study  
Nurse aide
Nurse Practitioner
Nurse Midwife
EKG technician
Cardiovascular technician
Cardiopulmonary Perfusionist
Primary healthcare
Medical assistant
Physician assistant
Anesthesia technician
Anesthesiologist assistant
Laboratory Science
Lab assistant
Medical lab technician
Medical technologistt
Forensic scientist
Animal Care
Veterinary assistant
Veterinary technician
Legal secretary
Paralegal, legal assistant
Attorney (aka lawyer)
Court Judge
Business Management
Office assistant
Assistant manager
Office manager
Upper management

Test out of classes entirely

This is a skill that may save a student serious time and money in college, as there's the option to test your way out of classes entirely. There are various types of tests an individual may take to receive college credit by examination.

Placement testing: Many college freshman will most likely have to take what's called a placement test after being accepted into a college or university to see where they should be placed academically. By doing rather well on the placement tests, you can avoid taking the most basic math and English classes. There are waivers a college freshman student can request if they meet certain GPA and coursework requirements. This is for those entering college for the first time, and is mostly for math and English courses. Some departments at colleges and universities also offer departmental exams for students who wish to test out of a course.

College Level Examination Program "CLEP": This is the most widely accepted credit by examination program available at over 2900 colleges and universities across the USA. CLEP exams are mainly designed for students wishing to test out of entry level classes based on "what they already know". This program was also designed for active military personnel looking to further their education, as well as those who simply do not have the time or money to take a class and want credit for it. There are a total of 33 CLEP exams available. Each test usually costs about $80 plus any other college fees, although they are free for active duty personnel. If you do not pass the CLEP exam the first time around, you must wait 3-6 months to retake the exam.

DSST (formerly DANTES): This program is very similar to the CLEP and costs about the same for each exam, only that it also offers credit for both lower and upper level classes. There are about 38 exams from which to pick. DSST credit isn't as widely accepted by the CLEP, although plenty of schools do accept this type of examination. Most tests costs about $80, although they can sometimes be more (unless you are currently enrolled in the military).

These are the two main "credit by examination" programs discussed in this article, although there are others worth noting, including Excelsior College Exams (offered on the Pearson VUE website), Advanced International Certificate of Education and International Baccalaureate (an option for international students looking to receive their education in the USA). If taking tests is a nail biting thought in itself, there are techniques in learning how to cope with test taking jitters (won't be discussed here however). Please do research on your school of choice's credit by examination policy, as many colleges only accept so many credits by examination (average is around 30, although some accept up to 60). Some may also accept only CLEP and not DSST (or vice versa) or other types of exam credits. Certain school programs may also not allow students to test out of specialty classes (or the exam only covers the lecture and not the lab).


What kind of classes will you be taking to obtain your degree this semester?

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Consider pursuing an online degree

If testing out of a class isn't an ideal option, going the online route may be the more ideal option of obtaining your college education. Do understand that when taking an online class, it is important to stay on top of your work (if not moreso) like you would if you had to drive to class every week. As always, take extra precaution and do your research when it comes to anything said on the internet.

Hybrid Programs: Some traditional brick and mortar schools offer their programs in both traditional and online formats, or entirely online. Classes taken at brick and mortar institutions can be set at the traditional pace of an entire semester (about 12 weeks) or at a faster pace (8 or so weeks). This saves time because some classes may be offered only once a semester, which could conflict with your schedule. The downside to this route is that sometimes students are still required to attend class on-campus once a week or so (or the lecture is strictly online but lab is onsite). This approach does save time in the sense that more class options may be made available, although tuition costs can still be high.

Online Colleges: Some institutions, such as Excelsior College and Thomas Edison State College, offer their programs solely online. While there's plenty of skepticism to go around regarding some online institutions, in many cases the degrees obtained from them are just as good as those obtained from traditional schools. This is ideal for people who work full-time and are looking to get their degrees more quickly. Online schools also tend to have a more generous credit transfer policy and often allow students to test out of a good deal of classes, saving plenty of time and money.

Do take care when approaching this route, as a lot of these institutions are regionally accredited rather than nationally accredited. Some states (and the employers located in those states) may not officially recognize the degrees obtained from solely online institutions. If in doubt about a particular institution's credentials, check out the database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs available online. Some employers who are more conventional in their hiring process may not take applicants with degrees from online institutions as seriously as those who went the traditional school route. However, there are also plenty of employers who do not mind applicants with degrees from online institutions and may view the candidates as being more self-motivated and mature than applicants with degrees from traditional schools. If you are looking to gain a degree to transfer to a particular program at another institution, they may be particular about the kind of credit they accept or how the students gained their degree. Do your research on the institution you want to transfer a degree to if you are looking to go from an online school to a traditional school.

Online Classes: Notice the differentiation between online classes and online programs/colleges? There are educational companies that offer classes able to be ACE recommended to be waived some colleges. A plus side to this approach is that classes can be taken at the student's pace (some claim as short as a week, although 3-4 weeks is probably more realistic for others). Students who take classes online by companies recognized by ACE could get a transcript in order to get a waiver for a particular class (or classes) at their school.

These classes are offered by companies, such as Straighterline and Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces "ALEKS". Membership for Straighterline is $99/month and classes are offered starting at about $49 each (sometimes you can buy one class and get another free with certain promotions). ALEKS is a a web-based artificial intelligence (basically a virtual tutor) assessment and highly personalized learning system offered by McGraw Hill Education. A monthly subscription to use ALEKS costs about $19.95 ($99.95 for 6 months and $179.95 for 12 months).

Take great precaution in taking this route, as there are plenty of scams going around online. It can be a real headache to take an online class only to find out your school will not accept credit for it. Since a lot of these type of companies aren't accredited (as they do not offer degrees), it can be more difficult to get these classes waived at your university or college. If you are looking to take this route, be sure they are recommended by the American Council on Education (ACE). You can also check the Ace Credit College and University Network to see if your school considers ACE credit recommendations. It is a bit of a process sometimes to get ACE credit recommendations to go through your school's transfer department (if they recognize ACE recommendations anyways), although ultimately taking a few extra steps now to make this happen could save you hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars in the long run.

Bottom line? Choose wisely

There are various ways to accelerate your process in obtaining your college education. Saving time in obtaining your college education always equates to saving a pretty penny. Heading straight to a brick and mortar 4 year college or university is a fairly pricy approach that may ultimately result in becoming burned out and in deep debt. First attending a local community college before transferring to a 4 year college or university may be the best approach for those who require a more traditional classroom setting (or tend to be bad test takers), yet still want to save time and money. Taking smaller steps degree wise by taking advantage of continuing education programs to climb up the career ladder can result in saving serious money, and also gaining more experience should it be required for job positions with more responsibilities and higher pay. As a major bonus, you never know if your volunteer or entry level job in your relevant field will result in you becoming reimbursed if you choose to further your education.

For those who prefer to test out of classes can take a variety of tests, such as CLEP (entry level) and DSST (lower and upper levels). Some may prefer to get their degrees solely from online-based institutions like Excelsior. Students who choose to partake in credit by examination or online programs and classes should do their homework if they intend on transferring credits, as some institutions accept only so many credits gained by examination or from online schools. In some cases, credit from certain companies or schools will not fulfill the requirements for particular school programs (medical programs and other graduate programs tend to be rather notorious for their selectiveness).

Online programs are often criticized by skeptical people who tend to think the value of education should be based on how much money someone put into their education. Of course, there are some companies and “colleges” out there based on all bluff and zero sustenance. However, attending a brick and mortar school does not guarantee anybody a job, no matter what the school tells them. Naturally, nobody wants to end up with a degree that does not result in obtaining a good paying job (and leaves them with holes in their pockets). Always do your homework before choosing a field, and do your research on claims made by any institution (even if it is more "established" in the eyes of society). Whatever route you choose to obtain your education, please choose your field of study wisely. After all, if there’s more supply than there is demand, you may not find a job no matter what kind of education you have.


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