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College for Free?
As any family can attest, it takes a lot of time, effort, and attention to detail in order to successfully navigate the college admissions and student loan applications processes. So it’s easy to overlook valuable programs and resources that can really help families meet their overall college costs by actually making freshman year of college free!
Learn and Earn
While most families know about Advanced Placement or AP courses and exams, there’s another often forgotten avenue to explore: CLEP exams. Both of these programs are run by College Board and both programs can translate into college credits for incoming freshmen. In both cases, test scores can be sent to a school where the student has already been accepted. Colleges and universities may offer students various amounts of college credit for each exam, depending on the test scores.
Students can find out which schools participate in the credit-by-exam programs through the websites of the schools they’re interested in. For example, a student who earns a 3 on an AP test may earn 4 credits, while a score of 5 might earn 8 credits; a high enough score on a CLEP exam can also translate to 8 credits. With just a few exams, students could earn credits equivalent to what a typical college freshman might earn.
Many students and families are already familiar with Advanced Placement or AP courses and tests. High school students often enroll in Advanced Placement classes in subjects like world history, chemistry, physics, math, and English. In May, those students are eligible to sit for the corresponding AP exams. These tests are scored on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the highest score. Students usually register and pay exam fees of $92 per test through their school, and take the test at school.
College Level Exam Program
But what about students whose schools don’t offer many AP classes? Or learners who are hoping to attend college after a gap from their high school years and don’t have access to high school AP classes?
Both high school students and adult learners can sit for one or more of the 33 College Level Exam Program (or CLEP) exams. This College Board program has been successfully helping students for decades. A 2011 study conducted by the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning found that students with bachelor’s degrees who participated in prior-learning assessments (like CLEP) shaved up to ten months off of their studies.
CLEP exams are typically offered several times per year in general education subjects like humanities, foreign languages, social sciences, pure sciences, math, and business. The entire process is in the hands of the student. When test-takers feel they have sufficient mastery of a subject, they choose an exam, testing date and location (often someplace like a nearby college campus). They register and pay for the test ($85 each), and then take the exam.
Most tests are 90-minutes to 120-minutes in length, and in many cases, are in multiple-choice format, although there’s some variation in those question types by subject. For example, a foreign language exam usually requires a listening section. Some subjects also include essay sections. Tests are designed and written by established committees made up of college faculty members and undergo a rigorous review and assessment process before being rolled out to students.
Need a Push?
Modern States Alliance, a nonprofit agency dedicated to making a postsecondary education accessible and affordable, has developed a Freshman Year for Free program. It’s one of the best programs out there to reduce college costs, yet few families have ever heard of it.
Students can sign up for a free account and access courses and materials (including textbooks!) to prepare for AP and CLEP exams. Modern States Alliance has partnered with edX, an education platform developed through a partnership of Harvard and MIT. These courses are open to all interested learners; there is no application process.
To participate in the program, students simply sign up and complete edX courses and then take the associated AP or CLEP exam. Students can then forward those scores to the college or university they plan on attending for consideration of college credits.
Enrolling in the Freshman Year for Free program allows access to lecture videos, course notes, textbooks, quizzes, and discussion boards for free. Most courses are asynchronous, meaning students can participate on their own schedule, and require only an internet connection and strong motivation.
Some students may be eligible for exam fee vouchers. But even for those who still do pay for their own AP and CLEP exams, it’s possible to earn a freshman year’s worth of college credits for a fraction of the traditional tuition and books costs.
Changing the College Equation
In the past, it was generally assumed that good grades and working hard equaled college admission and an affordable student aid package. For many families, the equation has changed; but taking advantage of programs like Advanced Placement and CLEP can still add up to significant savings.
With careful planning and preparation, it’s possible for incoming freshman to have already earned two semester’s worth of college credits, or more! That’s the equivalent of getting your freshman year of college for free, and saving up to 25% off of four years of college tuition.