When I initially drafted this piece about affordable options for college credit, I was going to frame it with background information and shocking details about the rising cost of education, how that cost is outpacing other economic indicators, and how student loan debt has reached $1,000,000,000,000.

But you already knew that.

So I’ll jump right to the point: if you are looking to earn credit — whether starting from scratch with no previous college level learning or bringing to the table years of educational and work experience — there are exceptional options out there to help you to save money on a degree.

To that end, I’ve done my best to identify as many of those options as I could, as clearly as I could.

The result is here. Take a look, and read on for a description of the contents and criteria.
(Note: I don’t expect this list to be fully comprehensive, and I plan to update it over time, though it may get out of date from time to time as more and more options are created. If you think something is missing or wrong, let me know, and I’ll add/fix it).

What Each Category Means:

I separated this sheet into five distinct categories:

  • Free Full Course
  • Free Short Courses
  • Affordable Courses
  • Credit by Assessment
  • PLA (prior learning assessment)

All provide credit options, but each category is unique. The one common factor is that I only listed an item if a student could potentially earn at least 3 hours of credit for $250 or less.

Free Full Courses
This category is most useful for individuals seeking credit in a subject area in which they have little or no previous experience. In this category, access to the knowledge is free, though the college credit itself may not be. All of the courses listed here are 100% free and available online anytime. They have also been designed to prepare students for an exam that could earn them college credit. With the exception of Saylor’s own Direct Credit options, the exams that these free courses are aligned to are created and administered by third parties (Excelsior College/UExcel exams, College Board CLEP exams, or Thomas Edison TECEP exams). Costs to attempt these exams vary, but all are considerably more affordable than the cost to enroll in the equivalent course at a college or university. Additionally, these courses offer flexibility, as they are designed to be asynchronous and can be taken any time that is convenient for a interested learner.

Options for transferring earned credit vary. For the Saylor Academy credit recommended courses, students will be issued a transcript by Saylor or The American Council on Education (ACE) which they can have sent to any school they are interested in attending. Not all schools will accept these, but we have started to build a list of schools that have agreed to do so. Both the CLEP and Excelsior exams are backed by ACE recommendations, which have been accepted by many schools, though not necessarily guaranteed. Additionally, students who pass either an Excelsior or Thomas Edison exam are guaranteed credit at those respective institutions, if they chose to enroll there.

Free Short Courses
All of the courses listed in this section are provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Management Institute (quite a mouthful). They were initially designed to help train government emergency management officials; however, they are open and available to all, and these independent study courses do carry a credit recommendation (1 credit hour per course or set of related short courses). Not all schools will accept transfer of these freely accessible credits.

Affordable Courses
Just as with the “free full courses” listings, all of these courses are full, college level courses, designed to match those taught at traditional brick and mortar schools. The difference is that access to the content which will ultimately prepare students to earn credit is not free (though it is very affordable), and some courses, like those offered by EdX, may only be available during limited windows of time. Still, quite a bargain, and all are backed with American Council on Education (ACE) credit recommendations.

Credit By Assessment
This fourth section is made up of additional credit bearing exams commonly accepted by colleges and universities that don’t yet have a 1:1 free online course match. Still, the exams are extremely affordable, and are great options for anyone who may have already learned the content being tested but don’t want to have to enroll in a full course just to earn credit for that prior learning. All exams come with a content guide, so students can fairly easily determine if they have the knowledge necessary to take and pass the exam. Additionally, for many of these, a student could cobble together free resources from around the web (MIT OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy, Saylor Academy, et al.) to help fill knowledge gaps. Ideally, all of these exams will have a free online course aligned to them sometime in the future – we are doing our best on that end, and please do let us know if we’ve missed one.

For this final section, I’ve identified colleges and universities that both assess, and allow students to receive credit for, prior learning; usually in the form of a written portfolio or learning experiences essay. (Big thanks to former Saylor Academy RAs Manaar and Denise for identifying these schools!) Note that for many of these schools, students would also need to enroll in a PLA course (for the cost of regular tuition) but that course will itself usually earn students credit, and will prepare and allow them to earn credit for the PLA portfolios. Also note that for many schools that have PLA programs, portfolio-based credit is only available for courses that don’t have a credit-by-exam option. Additionally, for some schools, students need to be enrolled in order to do prior learning assessments, while for others, students need not be enrolled and can get assessed in order to transfer earned credits elsewhere. I have also included CAEL’s LearningCounts.org program on this list, as it assesses prior learning for students independently (with credit recommendations backed by NCCRS), and also handles portfolio assessment on behalf of numerous schools. The 50 or so schools on this list don’t do the portfolio assessments themselves, but will grant credit to students based on CAEL recommendations.

The unique feature of PLA is that it can be useful for documenting and receiving credit for life experience, on the job training, or other acquired skills that mimic competencies learned in the traditional classroom setting. So, Bo Adams’ blog post isn’t too far off from what is already possible at some forward thinking schools.

Other notes
For schools that are generally willing to accept transfer of credit from the above non-traditional methods, there is usually a cap. On average, about 30 hours of credit can be brought in via these means — already a huge cost saving. Some schools, such as Excelsior College, SUNY Empire, and Thomas Edison, are even more generous, allowing upwards of a full degree’s worth of credits.

Additionally, many schools not otherwise represented here are willing to let students attempt a challenge exam to prove their proficiency in a subject. Policies and costs vary widely, but they can be a great option for saving time and money if you’re enrolled in a school and think you have what it takes to bypass some requirements.