A Fully Accredited Degree for $3,900?

OK…I admit, that sounds like the sort of thing that would be swept straight into your spam filter along with the emails about Viagra and penis enlargement.

In fact, that title and first line just about guarantees that none of the email subscribers are going to get this post…

But, in theory, obtaining a full four-year degree for under $4k should be possible. How?

CLEP is a program that allows you to take tests to show proficiency at a college level and can provide up to 12 credits per test.  The tests usually last about 90 minutes and the cost …under $100 per test!   Yes, for under $100 you could earn 12 credits. 

I used CLEP tests to cover a bunch of subjects when obtaining my degree, saving me months of sitting in classrooms listening to lectures on subjects I already knew.

Most of the tests I was able to pass without any study at all, but not all of them – I had to study for the test on American History.  So I started looking for a course that would fit in with my schedule and my budget.

Phoenix University wanted about $2,500 to spend a semester online.  Fortunately, I came across a faster and cheaper solution.  It turns out that Berkeley (and many other colleges) provide most of their lectures as downloadable audio for free.  I promptly downloaded 40 hours of lectures on American history and spent the next month listening to them during my daily commute.

At the end of that month I took a 90 minute test and walked out with 3 credits.  Total cost – $90!!!

Now I am not saying MP3s and videos can replace a classroom – there is a lot to be learned through interaction with teachers and other students.  And you certainly won’t get the ‘full college experience‘ via CLEP.  But how much is that worth?

Let’s compare our $3,900 degree with the cost of a school, such as New York University (NYU) Getting a four-year degree at NYU costs over $160,000 – in tuition fees alone.  Whoah!  That’s a big jump from $3,900.  I could buy a lot of ‘social interaction’ with the $150,000 difference!

And don’t let NYU give you a sob story about how much it costs to run a University either.  When I estimated how much NYU pulls in each year just (see the end of this post for the dull math stuff) I couldn’t use my iPhone because the numbers were too big.  By my estimate, NYU pulls in about $2.5 billion every year

While NYU is not a cheap college it is by no means the exception in its fees.  You can do things cheaper, of course.  Using community colleges to get the first two years out-of-the-way can save you a bundle (assuming that the college you want to officially graduate from will take your credits).  Even the cheapest four-year degree (in state, living at home and attending a community college) will cost you at least $25,000.

How do colleges and universities get away with this?  Well first off, none of the schools are going to let you take CLEP tests for more than a small percentage of their classes, so you have to attend their school if you want their piece of paper.  And let’s face it, most people don’t go to school for an education anymore – they go there to for a certificate.  Don’t believe me?  Ask yourself this question – if employers dropped the need for a degree certificate, how many people would still go to college?

Please don’t take this the wrong way.  Education is vitally important.  But we seem to have switched to a society that values certificates more than education and, in both academia and business, there are plenty of people willing to profit mightily from that.

Once upon a time schools were the places with the information you needed, and if you wanted to get an education then you had to go there.  Today it is completely possible to learn everything you need online, in your own time, and in a way that suits your learning style, timeframe and budget.  We are now in an age where education is freely available, but certificates are getting more expensive every year.

Which leads me to one of  my favorites quotes from the movie Good Will Hunting – “…in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and two, you dropped $150 grand on a f***in’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!

And that, my friend, is the honest truth.

How much does NYU bring in each year?  

  • $40,082 – Undergrad tuition (figures from Collegeboard for 2010 – 2011 could be a bit higher)


  • The current total enrollment at New York University is 22,097 undergrads and another 21,700 graduate enrollment.

So, 22,097 x 40,082 = $1,215,335,000 per year for just the undergrad tuition.

Add onto that:

  • Fees paid by the 21,700 grads (estimated at $883,276,800)
  • Fees for books and, of course, the non-refundable registration fees (a figure in the tens of millions).
  • Donations to NYU of $349,000,000 in fundraising during 2010.

So, each year, NYU brings in about $2.5 billion in fees and donations.

(note: NYU are not alone in this – I just picked them because they are local.  NYU does not accept CLEP at all currently)



Filed under Career, Education, Technology

5 responses to “A Fully Accredited Degree for $3,900?

  1. After posting this today Joanne directed me to a very interesting article in New York magazine called The University Has No Clothes. Very interesting read.
    Here’s a link to the article: http://nymag.com/news/features/college-education-2011-5/

  2. So timely for me! My daughter is graduating from high school in a few weeks and I am in a panic – sheer panic – about how she/we will afford college. Love the link you provided, too!

    • Jane,

      Definitely make sure that you check out the CLEP thing – if I remember correctly I picked up about 18 credits that way. I know one of the tests provided 6 credits, and that still only cost $90.

      I also took the cheap option of covering the first two years at the local community college. As long as your target college will accept the credits there’s no reason to spend a boat load of money teaching them about music if they are going to be a lawyer.

  3. Here’s another interesting looking site: http://academicearth.org/
    As they put it “Academic Earth is an organization founded with the goal of giving everyone on earth access to a world-class education.”

  4. So here is the real answer: http://jonbischke.com/2011/05/26/what-really-keeps-poor-people-poor/
    Top colleges can charge excessive amounts because it has nothing to do with gaining an education, or even a certificate, and everything to do with gaining access to people that are connected.
    It’s a shame really because there is a large part of me that says that if you are smart and educated (self or otherwise) then you should be able to do well in life. Sadly that does not seem to be the case.

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