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Non-Traditional College: A Closer Look

  • Kathleen Knudsen Home School Enrichment
  • Published Jan 22, 2009
Non-Traditional College: A Closer Look

Homeschooling from the time I was in kindergarten, my parents gave their lives to ensure that my siblings and I would not be sacrificed on the altar of Worldly Education. Perhaps you can relate. From phonics to physics, homeschooling was great for our family. We used curriculum from a wide variety of sources and participated in a number of extracurricular activities. Life was good.

Then it all changed. High school could not last forever. I made a really good child—but my parents were training us to be adults, not children. The final phase in my parents’ preparation program was college. My mother used to tell me that a college degree was a ticket, a stamp of approval, a weapon to use for God’s kingdom. Whether I became a missionary to Sudan teaching English as a second language or a mother teaching my own children at home, a degree would be an important tool in my toolbox.

Tragically, in the pursuit of a college degree, untold numbers of young people have had their faith and values undermined. Unwilling to compromise on faith and values, my family hit roadblocks as we looked into options for higher education. Most options seemed to contain land mines in one of three areas—faith, cost, or accreditation. It seemed that any accredited college was either publicly funded and sponsored secular indoctrination in the classroom or solid in faith and values with an exorbitant price tag. Unfortunately, in our research, the only schools which had reasonable prices and were committed to Christ and His word were also unaccredited.

Why is accreditation important? Accreditation is like a stamp of approval on a school by an outside party. Much like the Dove Foundation verifying family-friendly films, academic accrediting organizations exist to ensure a consistent level of academic excellence across a wide range of schools. Accreditation of a school ensures that each specific course requires students to achieve a set level of proficiency. These accreditation standards are valuable in providing a universal benchmark on academic quality between schools.

There are two main types of accreditation: regional and national. Over the last 200 years, regional accrediting councils have become centered on traditional academia and grant the highest form of academic accreditation for most schools. Conversely, due to the unique nature of each vocation, a number of national accrediting groups have evolved to certify standards of excellence in trade and vocational schools. For example, Atlanta Technical Institute is a nationally accredited school, and Harvard is a regionally accredited school.

However, sometimes class subjects do overlap. This is where confusion about accreditation generally occurs.  A regionally accredited school generally will not accept credit from a nationally accredited school, despite the individual credentials of the course instructor or the actual course content. This is due to the widely different set of standards used to evaluate schools by the accrediting agencies.

Accreditation is important. Very important. Unfortunately, the price tag on accreditation has in effect limited accredited schools to two categories: Christian but expensive or inexpensive but secular. For our family, this inspired a look into nontraditional college options. Could there be a way to gain that college credential without sacrificing the Christian foundation or busting the budget?  If traditional education seemed rife with pitfalls and land mines, perhaps nontraditional was the way to go.

And that is exactly what I did. Two aspects of nontraditional education worked exceptionally well for me—online learning and credit-by-examination. A little over two years after starting my college career, I took my last test, thereby completing the requirements for my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. For me, a combination of online courses and credit-by-examination provided an excellent answer to concerns about faith, cost, and accreditation.

The first aspect of nontraditional education that I pursued was online learning. Students completing a portion of their collegiate studies online is one of the fastest growing educational trends. According to published reports by the Sloan Consortium, a research conglomerate studying online higher education, by 2006, more than 96 percent of the largest colleges and universities in the United States offered online courses, and nearly 3.5 million students were participating in such courses. The Sloan Consortium also reported that “students generally appear to be at least as satisfied with their on-line classes as they are with traditional ones.”

While an exciting option, online learning does pose a few hurdles. Historically, colleges without a brick and mortar campus were not considered completely legitimate and thus were not granted regional accreditation. Students taking online classes must be very wary of colleges that have flashy Web sites but may not be legitimate, accredited programs. I learned this the hard way by beginning a degree program with a school that was nationally but not regionally accredited.  About halfway into my first semester, I learned that virtually no other university would accept credits from this school or view the degree as legitimate. Overall, my experience with online courses has been varied. Some were good; some were bad. Thoroughly researching a college or university before applying will be to your advantage. For me, it was a painful lesson.

Nonetheless, thoroughly researched online classes can have a number of appealing facets. One of the unique advantages I found in online learning was the ability to participate in classes from a Christian college that otherwise would be beyond my budget (a different school than the above-mentioned unaccredited one). Distance learning can cut costs dramatically by allowing students to stay home for a year or two before transferring to their college of choice. Schools like Liberty University offer online courses to literally thousands of students.  In my studies, taking a number of online courses from a Christian college was the first unique option that positively blended the aspects of faith, cost, and accreditation.

With the growing acceptance of online learning, the whole concept of non-traditional higher education has received much more attention. Though it has been around for decades, the idea of credit-by-examination has recently received discussion in the homeschool arena.

For me, credit-by-examination was another excellent alternative to traditional courses. It is a simple concept: You take a standardized exam to demonstrate your mastery of a given subject, thereby gaining college credit. A passing score on any given exam demonstrates an equivalent, if not greater than, knowledge to what an average student in a traditional course would have learned over a semester. This approach to education allows students to study at their own pace—which numerous students are finding to be much faster than in a classroom.

There are several prominent credit-by-exam options available: CLEP, DSST, and TECEP.

CLEP—College Level Examination Program  

Without a doubt, the CLEP program offered by the College Board (also the producers and administrators of the SAT) is the most popular credit-by-examination program. According to the College Board, 2900 colleges and universities award credits to students who successfully complete a CLEP exams. There are 34 exams available, comprised of 5 general subject exams and subject specific exams. Exams currently cost $70 each and cover topics ranging from accounting to literature to computer systems. A passing score grants students between 3 and 12 credits depending on the exam and the score. Most CLEP exams fulfill lower-level or general education credits in a degree template.

DSST—DANTES Subject Standardized Tests

The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (otherwise known as DANTES) program offers students 3 credits for a passing grade (score) on each of 37 unique subject exams. Offered in nearly 1700 testing centers and costing $80 a test, DSST exam disciplines range from Business to Physical Science and from Humanities to Mathematics. Due to their more specific nature, many of the DSST exams are considered upper-level and fulfill core degree requirements if accepted by a specific college.

TECEP—Thomas Edison State College Examination Program

Offering 66 exams in many upper-level courses, Thomas Edison has been offering TECEP exams for over 30 years as a way for students to earn college credit without having to sit through a course. These exams are an excellent way for students to demonstrate comprehensive knowledge, particularly in core subject areas. A TECEP exam is much like a final in a traditional college course, though perhaps a bit more intense. It is generally based off a specific textbook and has a 2-3 hour time limit. Currently exams cost $80 a credit hour or $240 for a three-credit exam.

Unique to credit-by-examination is the ability for students to select their own study resources in preparation for the examination.  For example, students can study biology (including evolution) from a Christian perspective, utilizing numerous Christian textbooks, study guides, DVD sets, and more. In my experience, credit-by-examination provided the exceptional blend of the Christian teaching, low cost, and regional accreditation that I desired.

Colleges such as Thomas Edison State College and Charter Oak State College work extensively with nontraditional learning styles and welcome students who seek to pursue degrees through innovative methods. Additionally, across the nation, various third-party organizations are now offering coaching and academic instruction for this mode of learning.

For me, a nontraditional approach worked well. Through online courses and credit-by-examination I earned my accredited Bachelor’s degree from Thomas Edison State College in just over two years at a fraction of the normal cost. However, above those advantages, completing my degree in this manner allowed me to strengthen the bulwarks of my faith in college instead of being bombarded by philosophies attempting to undermine it.

Is nontraditional college for you?  Look into it. It just might be your answer too. 

Published on January 23, 2009

Homeschooled through high school, Kathleen Knudsen attended Verity Institute where she completed her degree. Verity Institute is a program that provides Christian study resources for test preparation and schedule advisement for nontraditional college. Kathleen currently works at Verity Institute as an academic program advisor and may be contacted at Information about Verity Institute can be found at

This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb ’09 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Get more great homeschooling help by downloading our FREE report entitled “The Secret to Homeschooling Freedom” by visiting