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|What "External" Degrees Are||History of External Degrees|
|Validity of External Degrees||The Importance of "Accreditation"|
|Who Can Earn External Degrees||Entrance Requirements|
|Social Considerations of Ext. Degrees||How Long it Takes to Earn an Ext. Degree|
|Difficulties of Earning an Ext. Degree||Sources of Credit for Ext. Degree Programs|
|The Colleges Offering Ext. Degrees||Choosing Between Schools With Ext. Degrees|
External degrees are not conventional degrees, they're not distance education programs, and they're not correspondence programs, although they all have a lot in common. External degree programs generally have the same requirements as conventional college programs (for example, the total number of credit hours, minimum # of hours in each of the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences, etc.), but they are intended only for students who are mature enough to learn independently.
For students in these programs, the colleges do not provide any instruction, or give assignments. In fact, all they actually do is evaluate what the student has learned outside of their school. They do provide academic counseling, meaning that they give ongoing evaluations and recommendations, such as explaining how many more credit hours you have to have in the natural science subjects, and what your options are for earning them.
(In order to understand why colleges established external degree programs, read the History of External Degrees.) Most people in developed nations know what conventional college programs are like -- you go to classes at a campus of school buildings where you listen to lectures or discussions, read textbooks, answer questions, write homework assignments, etc. Some courses have laboratory (lab) classes, involving hands on participation with various kinds of equipment, from computers to wind tunnels.
Distance education programs are courses offered by some conventional colleges, and with these you do not attend classes on campus. You may receive video or audio tapes of the course being conducted in a classroom, and you will probably be asked to read more than you would if you were attending classes, but you will usually have the same written homework assignments as the regular classroom students. Written assignments for distance education students usually have the same deadlines as those for classroom students, but offset by 1 or 2 weeks, to account for the delay in mailing.
Some distance education classes have gone "high-tech," with live video broadcasts on cable or satellite, and "conference" telephone calls with students from all over the country on the phone with the professor at the same time. At least one college class has been conducted over the "Internet" -- a vast network of computers around the world.
Correspondence programs are similar to distance education programs, but this term is most often applied to through-the-mail courses that are self-paced, with either no deadlines at all, or very long periods allowed for turning in assignments. If the course is to be eligible for federal loan programs, they have to have some kind of deadline, so most of these programs have token limits of 1 to 2 years to complete a course. Many people associate "correspondence" courses with unaccredited vocational training programs for adults (like learning how to be a locksmith), though in fact, there are many different types of programs based on correspondence.
Many adults, especially those with families, simply could not afford the tuition, even with government grants and loans for part of it. And some who could afford the tuition could not afford the time away from work and family. Though some people have valiantly struggled through to finish their degrees just one class at a time (and their families suffering with them), this was certainly not a good way, especially if they already knew what the class was supposed to teach.
Fortunately, during the 1970's, a few educational leaders decided to do something about this problem. They became convinced that it should not matter where or how students acquire their knowledge - that if their knowledge is the same as that of college graduates, they should be entitled to the same recognition, the college degree. These visionaries began creating a college system with the idea that if you already know the material, you should not have to waste years of time and tens of thousands of dollars attending classes you do not need.
A system developed involving 2 types of organizations. The first type is the group of external degree colleges which grant degrees on the basis of the student's knowledge, and without regard to how or where they acquired the knowledge. The second type is the group of organizations that create, maintain, and administer proficiency exams, which provide a way for students to prove that their knowledge is equal to that of conventional college students.
Though these programs were begun with adults in mind, now teenagers can also take advantage of them. In fact, one has been created specifically for teenagers. See Earn College Credit (or Degrees) While Still In High School
Graduate school admissions officers have specific criteria that they look for in the applications of potential students. The main factors they care about are your college's accreditation, the grade point average (GPA) of your bachelor's degree work, your general intellectual ability, and your ability to get along with other people -- your "congeniality" .
In the 1970's and early 1980's, these admissions officers were unfamiliar with external degree programs, and were somewhat skeptical about their validity. Their graduate schools needed tuition paying students, however, so they were usually accepted on a conditional basis -- "you can start, but you can only stay if you get good grades." Soon, however, they discovered that the same factors that make for excellent employees also make for excellent graduate students. As a result, many of them are now eager for such students, as evidenced by the fact that more and more of them are admitting such students without a conditional status.
If you earn a significant amount of credit through conventional classes, say, 25% or more, then they will probably consider your GPA the same as they would most others. If you earn more than about 75% of your bachelor's credit through proficiency exams, then they probably won't care much about your GPA unless its very low.
Earning your bachelor's degree through proficiency exams will not make a big difference in how well you do on these aptitude tests, but it may help some by giving you lots of practice answering standardized, multiple choice questions. Every little bit helps.
Any employer who thinks about what kind of qualities you must possess to have earned a degree through independent study will immediately recognize many of the ideal traits they are looking for in an employee. While it is true that some personnel directors might not think about such things on their own, you can point it out to them, in person if you get an interview, or in a cover letter if you mail in a resume.
With many people applying for each good job that comes open, you need something to help you stand out, and nothing could be better than an external degree for proving you have what an employer is looking for.
These agencies require schools to maintain very high academic standards, and admissions officers do not have to judge every undergraduate school because these agencies have done it for them. The three external degree colleges referred to in this program: Regents College, Charter Oak College, and Thomas Edison State College, each have full regional accreditation, making it very unlikely that an admissions officer would mistake them for diploma mills (the only standard of diploma mills is your money).
If you still have any doubts about how well accepted these external degrees are on the basis of academic merit, they should be erased by the fact that graduates from these programs have been accepted into graduate programs at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, M.I.T., John Hopkins, Notre Dame, Cornell, and on and on.
For information about offical requirements for getting accepted into bachelor's degree programs, see Entrance Requirements.
The practical requirements for college level work are pretty much the same as the list of qualities that employers look for in job applicants. Generally, you must have some self-discipline, independent motivation, creativity, determination, and confidence. Do not get discouraged thinking that you must excel in each of these areas. All you have to be is a student with average abilities!
"Now, wait a minute," you may be thinking, "if that is true, why don't more people get college degrees?" Well, many do not have the time and money for conventional classes, and they haven't yet heard about external degrees. Even when most people learn about proficiency exams and external degree programs, however, there will still be many people who could earn degrees, but won't! The reason is not an ability, but a characteristic in which you must be above average -- you guessed it, determination .
Other considerations are having a bare minimum of academic skills, having some ability to reason logically, and just being old enough. Don't fret if your mental skills and abilities are weak, you can apply that determination and improve them! Marilyn vos Savant , who is listed in "The Guinness Book of World Records" Hall of Fame for "Highest I.Q.," is convinced that problem-solving and critical thinking skills can be learned and developed.
The conventional education system in the U.S. makes a rigid artificial distinction between high school and college level course work. As part of that, conventional colleges require a high school diploma or GED before you can enroll.
If you have only been out of high school a few years, they will probably require that your high school GPA be above a minimum score that they set.
If you have been out of high school for more than five years or so, they may enroll you even if you had a low GPA, but they will probably start you under a probationary status. As with all students, your grade point average will have to be above a minimum number to be allowed to continue.
External degree colleges, on the other hand, are quite used to un-conventional students, and likely to give anyone a chance to prove themselves, even if he or she does not have a high school diploma or GED. And if you take a standardized college proficiency exam before applying at an external degree college (with a score of at least the 25th-30th percentile or so), you will be offering proof in advance that you are capable of college work.
Most conventional colleges have a minimum age requirement for enrollment, but there is probably not a single one that would not waive that requirement for a youngster who could prove they can handle college level material. Proficiency exams are an excellent (and inexpensive) way to prove it.
A terrific alternative is to earn your bachelor's degree as fast and inexpensively as possible through proficiency exams, and then go right into graduate studies. You can get the same campus socialization, but you will have the greater prestige of being a graduate student!
If you need to support yourself while attending expensive conventional classes, this alternative is a great deal better. If you go into a conventional college right out of high school, and have to work, you will have to get your job on the basis of only a high school diploma. If, however, you knock out an external bachelor's degree first, and then go to graduate school, you can find a job on the basis of your bachelor's degree!
Naturally, you will probably find it much easier to get a job, and a higher paying one, with a bachelor's degree, rather than a high school diploma. In fact, graduate schools themselves usually hire quite a few graduate students as "graduate assistants," "research assistants," or "teaching assistants." These jobs sometimes pay very well, and may include reduced tuition!
External degree programs also offer associate degrees (2 year degrees), and the benefits already discussed could also be applied to them. You can earn an inexpensive 2 year degree from an external degree program, then finish a bachelor's at the conventional school of your choice.
External degrees will not just save you a few thousand dollars. Compared to conventional colleges, you can save tens of thousands of dollars !
Generally, the more hours you average studying each week will mean fewer months to finish a degree. And how you study it will make a big difference in how long it takes to master the material. You won't have someone else's class schedule -- either to push you along, or to hold you back. So make the most of it, and add some very impressive information to your resume!
It takes an average of four years to earn a conventional bachelor's degree, taking "full" class schedules for 9 months of each year. A full schedule is usually defined as 15 credit hours worth of classes. For example, you might have 2 five hour classes, 1 three hour class, and 1 two hour class. Each class meets for that number of hours each week during the semester or quarter. That is, a "five hour class" might meet once a week for 5 hours, or twice a week for 2 1/2 hours each time, or once for 2 hours and once for 3 hours.
Semesters are usually 15 weeks long, and quarters are usually 10 weeks. Colleges on semester systems have two semesters in 9 months, and quarter systems have 3 quarters in 9 months. Obviously, within a single year, you can choose a greater variety of classes in a quarter system than you can with a semester system.
Summer terms usually have condensed schedules, so that a "four" semester hour class might meet ten hours per week for 6 weeks.
If you earn some hours at a school with a quarter system and some at a school with a semester system, the credits are transferred from one to the other with 3 quarter hours being equal to 2 semester hours. Bachelor's degree programs usually require about 120 semester hours, or 180 quarter hours (masters degree programs can range anywhere from 20 to over 60 semester hours).
Conventional programs, with their rigid class schedules, determine how long it takes to earn such a degree. If you are limited in money for tuition and in time for classes, their schedules cannot adapt much to your individual needs.
External degrees on the other hand, are extremely flexible. Since these programs have the same basic requirements as conventional schools, it will take the same amount of time (an average of 4 years) to earn the same degree, if you earn credit hours at the same rate as conventional students. However, it is possible that you can earn the same number of credit hours as them, but in a much shorter period of time!
In earning an external degree, there are two factors that determine how long the whole process takes -- how long it takes to learn the same knowledge as conventional college students, and how long it takes to prove you have that knowledge. Since the proficiency exams you will take to prove your level of knowledge are administered numerous times each year (and all over the country), they really won't slow you down at all.
So, the amount of time it takes to learn what is expected of conventional college students is the critical factor, and that is determined by the amount and quality of your study time, and the quality of material you work with, not someone else's class schedule.
The amount of time you average week by week can make a difference of years, so the more time you put in, the better off you will be. It is true that some people seem to learn faster than others, and if you are one of the fast ones, so much the better, if you put in regular study hours. But even if you are one of the slower learners, you still may finish your degree in less time than faster students, if the amount of time you study each week is more than theirs!
Now let me point out that you do not have to study like you will be executed if you don't study for awhile. No one else is imposing any deadlines on you, so if you take study breaks of days, or even weeks, you are not going to lose this opportunity to earn your degree -- you will just delay it, and everyone has to take a break now and then. Remember, though, over the two or more years this whole process may take, it is the average number of hours per week that will really decide how long it ends up taking. So, take all the study breaks you need to keep your sanity, but then get back at it! The job of your life may depend on it at some point in the future, so do not quit!
If you find it hard to stick with it, just keep kicking yourself and endure the "suffering" until you pass at least one proficiency exam. When you pass that first exam, and think about how little your new college credit cost, you may find that is all the motivation you need to zip right through the rest of your college career.
If your first test score happens to fall short of what is required to earn credit, at least you will be able to see how much more studying you are likely to need to pass it the next time. And if you take the same exam more than once, the external degree programs take only your highest score, so that is not a problem.
Try it. What have you got to lose?
Another important consideration is that no one else is going to tell you which books or other material you have to study, so finding good study material is up to you. Buy textbooks from college bookstores and you will have the same material that's being used by conventional students. Or check them out from a public library.
For most people, probably the hardest part of earning a bachelor's degree through independent study is keeping yourself making steady progress. Conventional schools' class schedules are inflexible, but they do a pretty good job of keeping students learning regularly. Without that outside structure, you have to take responsibility for maintaining progress in your studies. Fortunately, that is not as hard as you might think.
Most conventional college students spend 3 to 5 hours in class each week, for each of their classes, and 2 to 4 hours studying at home (though professors commonly expect more). Even if you can only study a few hours each week, you can progress as fast as the conventional students in a particular class. And if you average more time per course, you will be going faster than them. You should also be aware that many people can learn faster when they study on their own than in class, where the professor and other students may slow them down.
For those who work best under pressure, one set of deadlines you can impose on yourself are the test dates. When you register for a test, you choose a specific test date, and bingo, you have a deadline. Remember though, you are in charge, and if you do not feel that you are really ready once the test date arrives, just reschedule it for a later date! When you register, the test date will usually be at least a few weeks off, and if you wish, you can register for a date several months ahead of time. If you happen to be one of those who do work best under pressure, then register early and try to get ready by that date.
You might think that getting study questions answered would be a big problem. Nah! Write down questions as they come to you, and first try to find the answers in your books (or at the library) because that will probably help you to remember them the best.
If you cannot find some of them by yourself, the easiest way to get an answer, and perhaps the fastest, is to pick up the telephone and call your nearest college. If your question is in biology, ask for the biology department. When you get a receptionist there, explain that you have a question in that field, and ask to speak to a professor who might be able to help you. In the worst case, they may not have someone available right away, but they will tell you when to call again to catch them there, or a professor may even return your call.
Professors are almost always glad to explain the answers to your questions, even if you are not one of "their" students. In fact, they often help newspaper and magazine reporters the same way. An alternative is to write letters to the authors of your textbooks.
When you have registered for a test, you can expect to be somewhat nervous as the test date approaches. A benefit of that is that it will probably give you a little extra incentive to review your books the last week or two. On the day of the test you want to be a little nervous -- it will tend to make your mind sharp, and help you stay alert for the one and a half to three hours that these tests usually last.
Too much nervousness during the exam can decrease your testing ability, however, so you should learn about some stress-reduction and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and imagery exercises. You should be able to find plenty of material on these subjects in the psychology section of your local library.
If you are nervous about even signing up to take a proficiency exam, do it anyway. Registering won't hurt, and even taking the test won't kill you. The worst that can happen is that you won't score high enough to earn credit. Regardless of how you score, there is no better way to reduce your test-taking fears than actually taking some of them, and the more you take, the less it will bother you.
If you do need to retake a test, the colleges with the external degree programs take the highest score, so do not let a minor setback keep you from trying again.
Basically, you can earn credit toward an external degree from any combination of conventional or distance education classes, proficiency examinations, certain "portfolio assessments," or certain military/employer training programs.
Since external degree colleges do not require you to take any classes from them, you can have conventional credit transferred from any number of accredited colleges. They do have typical standards for transferring credit, and you may think they are less than generous. For example, they may not accept any courses with a grade of D or even C. (If they do accept a few low grades in transfer, you can be sure that they will not allow any that would pull your Grade Point Average below the minimum they require for you to remain a student.)
The least expensive credit you can earn is though standardized proficiency exams, which are explained in the next chapter. If there is not one in a subject you have extensive knowledge in, you can consider individually designed proficiency exams. They cost a lot more than standardized exams, but they may still cost less than conventional classes, and you can still save a lot of time by not having to sit through classes you do not need.
Another group of programs that are similar to individually designed proficiency exams are portfolio assessments, where college professors compare your experience and training with what is taught in particular college classes. To find out more about this alternative, study the publications from the external degree schools. Again, these may save you more time than money, but they still have some big advantages over classes.
For those of you who have heard of CEU's -- Continuing Education Credits -- these have not been accepted at external degree colleges, and are not likely to be. While some conventional colleges offer CEU's from courses with reasonably high academic standards, many CEU programs appear to have extremely low standards, and some cover subjects that might be considered inappropriate for college credit.
If you have completed certain training programs in the military or industry, you may be able to have them converted directly into college credit with no further testing at all. For example, a pilot's license may be good for 3 to 6 semester hours at the external degree colleges. Let me say it one more time -- check the schools' latest publications to find out their current policies.
Regents College, in Albany, New York, was founded in 1970 by the Regents of the University of the State of New York. (They are the folks who run the public college and university system for the entire state.) Regents College is strictly an external degree program, meaning that it has no campus at all. This college has more students than the other schools with external degree programs, and has granted bachelor's degrees to more than 50,000 students.
Charter Oak College, in Newington, Connecticut, was established in 1973 by the Connecticut Legislature, and is both a conventional college and an external degree program.
Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, New Jersey, was founded in 1972 by the State of New Jersey, and chartered by the New Jersey Board of Higher Education. Thomas Edison's prospectus states that they intend their program for adult college students exclusively.
These colleges offer degrees with different majors (or concentrations) and if you desire a particular major that is only available at one school, then that is how you must decide. For example, if you want a bachelor of science in nursing, Regents College is the only one offering that particular concentration. A list of concentrations appears below, but again, make sure they haven't changed by the time you read this.
One important difference among these schools is that Thomas Edison does not grant credit on the basis of Subject Graduate Record Exams. The GRE's are by far the most economical way to earn college credit, so if you want to use them, you will have to limit your choices to Regents or Charter Oak.
Regents has a policy that allows many of the Subject GRE's fulfill all requirements for a concentration in a particular field, if your score is high enough.
Charter Oak has a policy that allows Subject GRE scores to be used to earn your degree with honors, high honors, or highest honors.
In the past, no schools had graduated scales for credit for these exams. Regents College now has such a sliding scale for Subject GRE's, but the minimum score required to earn any credit at all seems unreasonably high. Most of the people taking Subject GRS's are either graduating majors in the particular field, or they have already graduated, and are trying to get into graduate school in that field. Considering that, and the fact that Subject GRE scoring gives no benefits from guessing, a score of only the 20th percentile in this group indicates that you have a degree of knowledge equivalent to at least 3 semester hours. Unfortunately, Regents requires a significantly higher score before they will even award 3 hours.
If you do take a Subject GRE, and your score is too low for credit, or too low for the amount of credit you want, study a little longer and retake the test! Very fortunately, Regents and Charter Oak will take your highest score, no matter how many times you take a particular exam.
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