In the arena of using alternative college credits to the fullest, there are 3 colleges that stand alone as the most flexible with and DIY-friendly; they are affectionately called “The Big 3.” If you hear people talking about testing out of a degree, this is what they mean.
The Big 3
There is a pet name given to the three colleges/universities that stand apart in their transparency, low residency requirements, and credit acceptance of alternative credit. Many people call them “The Big 3” because they are the only 3 legitimate regionally accredited colleges in the country that allow you to plan and complete a degree almost entirely DIY style. People who plan well can apply for admissions and graduation in the same semester – cutting the cost of a college degree by tens of thousands of dollars.
It’s worth pointing out that The Big 3 are regular colleges! They are regionally accredited and have regular (non-DIY-degree-planning) students enrolled in normal programs. You *could* enroll and take their classes and pay full price (like tens of thousands of students are doing)… but, you don’t have to. Since the tuition at The Big 3 is pretty high, these colleges ONLY make sense if you’re DIY-degree planning and are intentionally going to earn your credit BEFORE you enroll. Trust me, you do NOT want to overpay for a degree, and unless you plan to earn almost all of your credits elsewhere, The Big 3 don’t make good sense. The Big 3 make sense because they allow you to earn your credit elsewhere.
The “Cliff’s Notes” version: You carefully and resourcefully plan and complete 114 (of 120) college credits using approved alternative credits or a cheaper college. You’ll apply for admission, send your transcripts, and promptly register for the 2 remaining required courses. Pass the two classes and graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
Yes, it’s legitimate. I earned an associate’s and bachelor’s degree from one of The Big 3 many years before I wrote Homeschooling for College Credit, and since that time, two of my sons and hundreds of people in our HS4CC community have earned degrees from one of The Big 3. They’ve gone on to grad school, law school, and assorted occupations. If you want to read my personal story, it’s written here.
- Thomas Edison State University, Trenton, NJ- A state college / non-profit offering associate, bachelor, and master’s degrees. About 17,500 students.
- Excelsior University, Albany, NY- A non-profit private college offering associate, bachelor, and master’s degrees. About 36,000 students.
- Charter Oak State College, New Britain, CT- A state college / non-profit offering associate, bachelor, and master’s degrees. About 2,500 students.
When people say they “tested out” of their degree, that’s a hold-over term from when it was literally possible to use standardized exams to complete a degree at one of The Big 3. In fact, there are genuine accounts of people testing out of entire bachelor’s degrees in a month! Those days are long gone, but you can still use standardize exams to earn most of your credit at The Big 3. Currently, Thomas Edison and Charter Oak both cap the number of test-out credits to 90 (75% of the degree), but Excelsior doesn’t have a limit.
Lower Level Credit (100-200) is the easiest and cheapest to earn, and it’s what usually gets people excited about testing out. CLEP exams are a favorite, and it is possible to accumulate half of a degree using CLEP exams! Since CLEP exams are currently free with a voucher from Modern States, most people are very motivated to use CLEP to the fullest. The Big 3 also accept CLEP, AP, Sophia, Studycom, Coopersmith, Outlier, Saylor Academy, ASU Universal Learner, and almost any credit that applies it toward your degree.
In addition to testing out or alternative credit, you can also use dual enrollment (sometimes free) to meet the requirements. 30 Ways to Earn College Credit in High School
Upper Level Credit (300-400) is harder to obtain, and can be more expensive because there are fewer options. There are a few tests that yield upper level credit (selected DSST, TECEP, Saylor Academy, Coopersmith, NYFLP, etc). The upper level credit requirements differ between colleges, but be aware that it is the upper level credit (not lower level) that often sets the budget for a degree earned at The Big 3.
So Why isn’t Everyone Using Them?
Because the colleges are nothing special if you’re just there to take classes and earn a degree. For what they cost, you could earn your degree anywhere…. but it’s their credit acceptance policy that sets them apart, and taking advantage of that policy requires an “outside the box” approach and an above average level of resourcefulness.
Earning a degree through one of the The Big 3 requires a lot more work than simply signing up at your local college and taking the courses they tell you to take. When you’re completing degree requirements DIY style, you won’t have access to the college’s team of advisors. Why? Because they aren’t in the business of telling you how NOT to take their classes! Using one of The Big 3 requires extensive and careful planning.
The Big 3 also don’t have dorms, sports teams, or other things many college students want. They are primarily online only, and serve the student who wants a credential instead of an experience.
The Big 3 allows students to take a true “DIY” approach to earning an affordable college degree. One of these schools might be a good fit if:
- You enjoy planning for your teen and scouting out college credits.
- Your student likes self-paced or independent study.
- You have the motivation to understand how credits transfer and apply.
- You are willing to look up courses and match them up with requirements.
- Saving money or avoiding student loan debt is a top priority.
- College’s brand name isn’t a top priority for your family.
- Your teen’s target major doesn’t require “hands on” classes like culinary, welding, nursing, art, automotive, etc.
- You like using CLEP, Sophia, Studycom, DSST, Straighterline, or other alternatives.
- You can pay cash for alternative credits as you go (as opposed to using financial aid after high school graduation).
- You know grad school is expensive so you want to cash flow undergrad.
Unlike traditional colleges, students who earn degrees through The Big 3 pick and choose their courses, thus choosing their cost per credit. If you want to use a free CLEP exam to complete College Algebra, a $200 dual enrollment course, or a $1,500 private college class- it all checks the same box, and as long as you earn the credit, it checks the box.
The average “rack rate” tuition credit through The Big 3 is about $600 per credit, but resourceful parents aren’t paying that. Through careful planning, you can expect to spend less than $3,000 for the first 90 credits (when you outsource!) Those will cover your general education courses, electives, and many of the specific requirements. The rest of your budget will require hitting the specific course requirements of the degree you’ve chosen (and that could mean paying rack rate for some or all of those.)
Average cost of a Big 3 degree can be under $10,000 (People who paid much less probably did so before 2020 when the ACE acceptance policy changed.)
The cheapest way to earn college credit today is through CLEP. CLEP exams are currently $0 when you use a voucher from Modern States, and you can use CLEP for almost half of your degree.
There are more variables for a Big 3 degree than any other program because YOU are choosing the classes and the major. If you choose a major that can be completed mostly using alternative credits and CLEP, you’re going to spend the least money. (Hint: Liberal Arts or Business are the two lowest cost options when you plan well.) If, on the other hand, you choose a major that requires a lot of expensive classes (hint: lab science is the most expensive) your degree costs will rise.
The Big 3 are not the right choice for everyone. It pains me whenever I read books or websites that push students into a Big 3 degree as if it’s the only way to earn an affordable degree. While you can always shove a square peg in a round hole, it’s harder and more expensive for some students to make this degree work for their occupation or prepare them properly. For the scenarios below, there are better plans than using The Big 3. It is my opinion that you should avoid The Big 3 when:
- Your teen’s target occupation requires a special program accreditation or state license.
- Your teen’s target major requires classes taught in a lab, clinic, or hands on setting.
- Your teen’s grad school requires completion of a science lab set (pre-med, dental, pharm, chiropractic, PA, physical therapy) and has competitive admissions.
- Your teen’s target occupation requires a special type of degree.
- You don’t trust your ability to pick the right classes or credits for your teen.
- Your teen wants a traditional college experience.
- Your teen wants to take classes with a traditional professor.
- Your teen doesn’t do well learning independently or online.