The Ultimate Guide to College Degree Hacking in Ohio
In 2007, I graduated from high school with no idea of how I would make my college aspirations a reality. Over the past decade, I've had the privilege to both attend and work at some of the best universities in Ohio and the world.
Here’s a quick list of the institutions I’ve taken part in:
- Case Western Reserve University
- Cedarville University
- Cleveland State University
- Ashland University
- Ashland Theological Seminary
- Princeton Theological Seminary
- Cuyahoga Community College
- Western Governors University
That being said, I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I acquired unnecessary student loan debt. I took courses out of sequence. I transferred colleges and changed my major more times than I’d care to admit.
What all of these experiences taught me is that there is a better way to do college. It is possible to complete a college degree for pennies on the dollar when done creatively.
The traditional way to go to college is:
- Choose 1 school
- Choose 1 major
- Follow their 4-year degree plan (even though 60%+ of students take 6 years)
- Accrue $30,000 - $50,000 in student debt for your bachelors
- Continue on for your 2+ years masters or professional degree in the same school or one recommended by your faculty
- Accrue another $50,000 - $80,000 in debt for that degree
- Live happily ever after (with an average $949 monthly student loan repayment for the next 10 years and no work experience after 6+ years of schooling)
This article is the resource I wish I had found in my senior year of high school or first few years of college. If you follow the advice and use the resources linked throughout, you (or your child, friend, sibling, etc.) will save years of your life and tens of thousands of dollars.
What Will Be Covered in this Resource
The rest of this post will be divided into two main sections.
The first section deals with “classic” ways of getting your college degree cheaper and faster than the traditional route. If you are familiar with the college environment, then you will likely already know about some of these.
- Community College
- Degree-by-Exam (AP, CLEP, DSST)
- College Credit Plus
- “Free” Colleges
The second section deals with “experimental” ways of getting a college credential. All of these are fully accredited and legitimate. But, because they push the boundaries, they will not be right for every student.
- Competency Based Education
- Quantic MBA
The goal is to help you acquire an accredited college degree:
- In less than 4 years
- For nearly $0 in debt
Also note, this post is geared towards students looking to go to college in Ohio (or live in Ohio and want to take advantage of accredited online options). I know that other states are working on innovative options (both California and New York are doing interesting work in the space). But as an Ohio-native, I wanted to help other Midwesterners take advantage of the uniquely robust universities (all 97+) we have right in our backyard.
Let’s get started.
Classic Ways To Degree Hack
Complete your first 60 credits at a Community College.
The first college I went to, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), charges $2,186 per credit hour. That's roughly $6,600 per course. The community college down the street from where I lived, who, by the way, had a transfer agreement with every local 4-year university (including CWRU), which would have made transferring credits a breeze, charges $114.54 per credit (or $340 per course).
In this example, the cost-savings of doing your first 2 years at a community college and then transferring to a 4-year university is approximately $124,287.60. No, that’s not a typo. The decision would save you the equivalent of a small family home.
Community college is the first recommendation I make to every college-seeking person. It’s affordable, efficient, easily transferable, and loaded with benefits. Plus, they often have excellent relationships with local employers.
One of the reasons they can pass on such significant savings is because they are an academically-focused entity. Most community colleges don't have dorms, elaborate dining halls, or sports teams. They focus solely on the education piece. Plus, their state funding relies on them helping their students graduate and find suitable employment. If more 4-year universities were on the hook for their students' success, we'd likely see their priorities shifting.
There are approximately 25 community colleges in Ohio, so the chances are very good there’s one close to where you live. This means you would also be able to save on room and board, dining, and possibly even hold down a part-time job during your education if you wanted to.
Community College Plan
- Enroll in local community college
- Attend for approximately 2 years
- Complete at least 60 credits, attain an Associate's degree
- Save 80%+ on traditional college costs
Test out of your basic degree courses.
If you are one of those individuals who actually likes taking tests, or just really want to complete your degree quickly, then this option is for you.
There are three standardized ways to test out of your college courses. The term they use for this method is Credit-by-Exam.
The first and, in my opinion, most difficult option is AP Exams. AP stands for advanced placement. These subject-specific tests are usually taken during high school, cost around $90, and can award anywhere from 3 – 16 college credits.
Yes, you can earn 16 college credits from a single $90 test if you score high enough (here’s an example of AP credit awards for Cleveland State University). Insane, right?
From personal experience, I do find that these tests tend to be slightly more difficult than the next two alternatives. However, if there is a subject or two that you are especially gifted at, then I would highly recommend you give this option a try.
Here is a list of the 30+ AP Exams available in Ohio. Each test link includes details on the subtopics covered, future testing dates, and recommended study materials.
Begin here to learn more about AP: https://apstudents.collegeboard.org/about-ap-exams
CLEP stands for College-Level Examination Program. These tests were my first introduction to degree hacking back in 2010 when I tested out of my Biology, Humanities, and Math requirements.
They operate similarly to the other items in this category. You pay around $89 for one of 34 different tests, and as long as you meet the minimum accepted score – you get the credits for whichever institution you attend. You can use the following link to see the official Ohio CLEP guidelines regarding the testing requirements and each Ohio university’s rules for acceptance.
I found that the content for these tests was straightforward and, overall, more user-friendly. The study materials range from $20-30 dollars, such as this College Mathematics Prep Guide.
Acceptable CLEP scores range from 50-65+ depending on the subject. And, like AP tests, you could be awarded anywhere from 3-16 credits depending on the institution (here is an example from CSU’s CLEP Guidelines).
Begin here to learn more about CLEP: https://clep.collegeboard.org/exams
Here are two additional articles written by degree-hackers that drive home the benefits of CLEP:
DSST stands for Dantes Subject Standardized Tests. These were originally started by the military to help their men and women turn their knowledge into standardized credentials through testing. However, its been available for both military and non-military individuals for quite some time.
One advantage of DSST tests over CLEP and AP is that a number of higher-level courses (300 and 400 level) can be completed with these tests. Although, the difficulty with this is that transferring higher-level courses is usually met with more difficulty, since colleges have residency requirements that require students to complete a minimum level of credits at their specific institution (usually 30+); primarily credits coming from high-level courses.
A DSST test will run you around $85. The study materials tend to be priced a bit higher at $40+, depending on the subject covered. Here is a full list of the DSST subjects covered, along with more relevant information.
If you are a member of the military (thank you for your service!), there may be additional benefits here I might be missing. That being said, nearly every Credit-by-Exam option has a military discount – so I would likely recommend sticking with the AP and CLEP since they seem to be more widely known in the Ohio higher ed world.
Learn more about DSST: https://www.getcollegecredit.com/
Complete high school and college at the same time.
The last “classic” option I wanted to cover is called Dual Enrollment for College Credit Plus. This program allows gifted students from 7th to 12th grade to earn both college and high school credits through their courses.
Students are able to take classes at their middle school, high school, and local college in order to complete their courses. Best of all, the program is 100% free for students and parents.
As you could imagine, there are many guidelines that need to be followed since the program deals with minors. Ohio has created an extremely comprehensive FAQ section to help with this.
My wife was actually a participant in this program and completed both her high school and Associate's degree on the same day at the age of 17. I know, she's amazing.
You can learn more about College Credit Plus here: https://www.ohiohighered.org/collegecreditplus
“Free” Colleges in the USA
I shouldn’t have to preface this by saying nothing is ever 100% free, but I will just in case you believe the hype that some articles and admissions representatives will try to sell you.
Yes, there are legitimate tuition-free colleges in the US, but every single one has a stipulation to make it possible such as mandatory work programs, extra fees, or contractual obligations upon graduation. Still, if the circumstances fit your situation, these can be excellent alternatives.
Work Colleges are institutions that cost students $0 in tuition but require them to work during their degree. The work usually consists of both traditional on-campus jobs (bookstore, library, dining hall) as well as maintenance positions (lawn services, building maintenance).
These differ from work-study programs because the student’s entire tuition is paid by the program, rather than giving them a small hourly wage. Currently, there are 8 federally approved Work Colleges in the US that practice this model:
- Alice Lloyd College*
- Berea College*
- Bethany Global University
- Blackburn College
- College of the Ozarks*
- Paul Quinn College
- Sterling College
- Warren Wilson College
Alice Lloyd, Berea, and Ozarks are starred because I’ve either personally met people from these programs or they specifically accept Ohio students.
You can learn more about Work Colleges here: https://workcolleges.org/
Colleges with No Tuition but Some Fees
If you are okay pursuing your degree outside of Ohio or online, then one of these options may be a good fit for you. They all practice some form of tuition-remission or guaranteed scholarship model. However, students will still be on the hook for some fees.
- Barclay College (Kansas) – No tuition if you live on campus. Room and board will cost you $9,000 – $12,000.
- Curtis Institute of Music (Pennsylvania) – No tuition, but annual fee (around $2,000) in addition to room and board.
- Deep Springs College (California) – No tuition, similar to Work College model, although only offers 2-year degrees.
- Webb Institute (New York) – They focus on engineering programs, but since it is based in New York the room and board costs start anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000.
- University of the People (Online) – This innovative online college offers everything from associates to masters degrees and charges $0 in tuition. However, they do have a fee per course so a complete degree will cost you anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 depending on the academic level.
- Military Colleges (Varies) – I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the benefits of serving in the US Armed Forces. I know very little about this area of higher education; only of what I’ve heard from about half-a-dozen close friends serving in various branches. Here are the 5 academies referenced in various free tuition forums online: United States Air Force Academy, United States Coast Guard Academy, United States Merchant Marine Academy, United States Military Academy, United States Naval Academy.
As the realm of higher education continues to buckle and shift, I expect this list of no tuition colleges will expand. I also imagine many more free college alternatives will become available to Ohio residents. What’s most important is that you find a program that fits your needs and does its best to set you up for success by not saddling you with unnecessary debt.
New Ways To Degree Hack
Alright, now we get to talk about some of the exciting options I've stumbled upon during my time in higher education. My goal with this list is to build it up over time so that it becomes the #1 resource for Ohio college students.
I expect the number of alternative credential paths will explode in the coming decades. Even so, the options we have available at this moment are incredible.
Competency Based Education Programs
Competency Based Education (CBE) is easily my favorite option in this category; albeit one of the more controversial ones.
CBE challenges most conventional learning theories by allowing students to move as quickly as they desire through the material, so long as they can display “competency” for what has been covered. Competency can be shown through passing tests, writing papers, giving presentations, and more.
Because CBE programs don’t believe time should be a fixed element in education, they charge a fixed sum by semester rather than by course. Ambitious students can complete as many courses as they want within a single paid semester. This is how I completed a Master of Education degree in 3 months for less than $3,400.
CBE programs struggled in the early days to achieve accreditation because established colleges were terrified that such a model would break the system. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened. What I’ve found is that CBE is great for career-minded, disciplined students. It definitely does not work for everybody. If you know you are a person who needs a higher level of accountability and would benefit from a weekly, face-to-face with your instructor, then this route probably isn’t for you.
But, if you're driven by the idea that you could get a regionally accredited bachelor's degree in as little as 6 months to 1 year (even though moving that quickly is not recommended), then you could do well in a program like this.
There are about a dozen CBE programs floating around online, but I only feel comfortable sharing 4 of them and recommending only 1.
My CBE recommendation:
- Western Governors University – 60+ CBE degree programs
Benefits of this model:
- All of these programs are online.
- Each “semester” costs between $3,000 - $4,000, depending on program
- You can move as quickly as you want, so that you can finish more cheaply.
- Excellent support system: personal mentors, weekly instructor calls, free textbooks and study resources
Additional CBE’s worth looking at:
- University of Wisconsin “Flex” – 6 degrees
- Southern New Hampshire University – 4 degrees
- Northern Arizona University – 7 degrees
Mobile-First and Reverse Tuition – Quantic MBA
The Quantic School of Business and Technology first made waves in 2016 (it was named Smartly at the time) when they decided to offer a free MBA program.
By using a model of reverse-tuition. Instead of charging students to attend their school, they charge companies to recruit from their elite group of students. Quantic has made this work by accepting only the most outstanding candidates from around the world. At this time, they are arguably the most selective MBA program in the world.
The downside is that they are still fairly new and unknown, which is a problem since one of the major upsides of acquiring an MBA is name recognition (i.e., Harvard, Stanford, etc.).
In the last few years, they’ve also made the change to becoming a mobile-first educational experience. Data consistently shows that the majority of online activity now takes place on mobile devices. Education has tried to buck trends in the past, only to their detriment. So, Quantic may be ahead of the curve, but this is a strategy I expect to see most universities adopt (at least for their online programs) within the next decade.
Benefits of Quantic:
- Free MBA if accepted
- Mobile-first design which means lessons are more succinct, require a lower overall time commitment, and produce more engaging content
- Small but active alumni network (of very highly qualified individuals)
Learn more about Quantic MBA: https://quantic.edu/mba
Individual Course Alternatives - Outlier
Most of the advice so far has centered around full-on degree programs or credential alternatives. The next option deals with trading out individual courses for cheaper, better (in some ways) choices.
Outlier is a company started by one of the founders of MasterClass. If you haven’t heard of MasterClass, it’s essentially a course platform for learning from the elite: the best chefs, actresses, writers, etc. I took a class from Malcolm Gladwell from it and absolutely loved the experience.
What they do well is bridge the gap between entertainment and education. The videos are beautifully produced. The LMS (learning management system) is minimalist and efficient. The whole experience feels like the Michelin star equivalent of online courses.
Outlier plans to do the same thing for higher education: present college course material through beautiful videos and minimal learning experiences.
As of writing this, they only offer 4 courses:
- Calculus I
- Intro to Psychology
- Costs $400
- Awards 3 credits from the University of Pittsburgh – which can then be transferred to any other university
- Offers a full refund if you don’t pass
As you could imagine, this model has rubbed some people the wrong way. One professor writing for Pitt News listed his arguments against Outlier which included poor assessment structures, lack of 1-on-1 communication, and accessibility of technology.
While some of the arguments may be valid, they are also exaggerated. My personal opinion is that Outlier won’t fundamentally change how colleges operate (because they are rather conservative in their mission).
However, I do expect they will push student expectations of what a lecture should look and sound and feel like. Also, I think their customer-centric view of LMS design will also force the industry to upgrade and stop using technology that looks like it's from the '80s to deliver content that students are paying tens of thousands of dollars to access.
Benefits of Outlier:
- If you are having trouble with an introductory course, try completing it through Outlier instead – you’ll likely have a much better experience
- $400 price point makes it comparable to community colleges
- Online and easily accessible
Learn more about Outlier: https://www.outlier.org/
MOOCs But Better – EdX MicroMasters
Remember MOOCs? Massive Open Online Courses – people love to hate them, and then love them again, and then go back to hating them.
A MOOC is essentially a series of recorded lectures that you watch in order to pass an assessment and receive a certificate. People thought this format was going to change the education industry forever. What they found is that lectures are boring. The most successful courses were only seeing a 3% completion rate, if that.
Furthermore, employers don’t value certificates the way they do degrees, certifications, and other industry-specific credentials.
To remedy this, MOOCs have started to explore better credentialing options. The one worth mentioned is called MicroMasters. Think of these credentials as Certificates+. They are valued more highly because they require students to complete a series of courses and assessments, rather than a single one.
The part I am most excited about is how these MicroMasters feed up into more established credentials, such as fully accredited master’s degrees. The way it works is that the micro degree acts as an initial “chunk.” Once this chunk is completed, then you’re able to apply it towards a full program – like the University of Maryland’s MBA program.
EdX now offers 13 fully accredited master’s programs that can be started, to varying levels, using cheap or free MOOC-versions of their online courses. The programs themselves still cost between $10,000 - $20,000+. However, that is still far less than equivalent programs.
Learn more about MicroMasters: https://www.edx.org/micromasters
How I Would Degree Hack if I was Starting Over
This article contains a lot of information, so I want to close by offering you a strategy to apply these offerings in the best way possible according to your situation.
If you are a high school student, or parent of one.
- Start with College Credit Plus.
- Finished your associate's degree, or as much of it as possible, by the time you graduate high school.
- Enroll in a Competency Based Education (CBE) program option to get your bachelor's degree in 1 year or less (and for less than $10,000 total).
- Get at least 1 year of work experience in a desired field before pursuing any master's options (trust me, this experience will help you make a more informed decision).
If you just graduated high school and want to finish a degree as quickly as possible.
- Take CLEP tests. I would aim for 1 a month for 6-12 months. You could realistically knock out the first 2 years of your college degree for under $500.
- Check with the 4-year college you want to enroll in for what scores they accept.
- I would recommend going the CBE route (here is the CLEP scores needed for WGU).
- Then get 1-2 years of work experience before enrolling in masters if that is your desire.
If you are a working adult who is okay with online education.
- Go directly into a CBE like WGU.
- Enroll in a bachelor’s program – don’t bother with an associate’s degree if you already have work experience.
- If you plan to stay in the field you are currently working in, start a master’s immediately after completing your bachelor’s degree.
- If you want to change fields, enroll in a MicroMasters so that you can test the waters of a different field for a very low cost (time-wise and financially).
If you are a working adult who is NOT okay with online education.
- Enroll in a community college that offers night and weekend courses (90%+ of them do, I promise).
- See if your community college offers bachelor degrees (at least 6 in Ohio currently do).
- If you find yourself struggling with a course, or want to test the waters with online learning, enroll in Outlier’s offerings. This will be the most user-friendly entry point to online learning.
If you are a student in any of these categories and are stuck with a class/subject/test.
- Go to YouTube – it is the most underrated education platform online.
- Go to Khan Academy – the tutorials, especially the ones on math and science, are extraordinary.
- Go to Quizlet – an excellent resource for premade study materials.
If there are any resources you think I should add to this list, head over to this page and fill out the contact form. Good luck on your education journey!