by Christie Ballmann
YIPEE! For a few seconds a shower of blue graduation caps rains down on the jubilant class of 2003. Amidst deafening celebration, a grinning Grandpa Typical makes his way over to his grandson, Eddie Typical. “Well, Eddie, you’ve made it! Congratulations!” (This is followed by a friendly slap on the back.) Then Grandpa pops the big one….“So, you’re 22, and you have a degree.
What are you going to do now?”
A low groan escapes Eddie’s lips as he faces the future. “I know what I would like to do. I would like to travel, maybe take a missions trip, and explore some things that interest me. But … I have to find a job, so I can start paying off my $25,000 college loan. I’d like to find something in marketing since that was my major, but nobody wants to hire me without experience. I’ll settle for anything at this point.”
This scenario will likely be repeated thousands of times each year as a fresh wave of college graduates looks for the “next step.” They learn, often too late, that experience and good character are valued above paper certification.
However, there are circumstances and professions where experience and character alone are not enough – a degree is required or extremely beneficial. How great it would be if there were a way to acquire an accredited quality education based on character-building experience without spending four years of energetic youth and thousands of dollars confined to secular college classrooms.
As a home educator, you already understand that a quality education is not guaranteed by expensive school tuition or lengthy class hours. Personalized education, self-motivated commitment to excellence, and life-based learning create the home school advantage. These principles should be applied with equal fervency to a college education.
My purpose is not to persuade you into a college education through distance learning. God has different, wonderful plans for each of us, and for a great many they do not include college at all. My goal is to inform and challenge those desiring a college degree, for whatever motivation, to make use of the accelerated credit earning options available. At home or abroad, in high school or as a working young adult, for just a few credits or many, distance learning can help you meet your goals.
My parents introduced me to college distance learning in high school. Using credit-by-exam and online courses, I was able to earn twenty hours of dual high school/college credit before graduation. We were not planning on college at the time, but the credits were there to give me a jump-start if I needed them.
Bucking the norm, my parents supported me in pursuing apprenticeship and ministry opportunities instead of college. For four growing years, while many of my friends were in college, God gave me opportunities to learn, travel, minister, and apprentice. How grateful I am that my parents did not rush me into college because of pressure from family and friends. It was not always easy.
A personal dream finally compelled me to look into earning a bachelor’s degree. A large portion of the globe is closed to long-term foreign workers unless they have a bachelor’s degree. However, the prospect of spending three more years in a college classroom to finish off the needed credits did not appeal to me for manifold reasons.
I then came across the brand-new book Accelerated Distance Learning by Brad Voeller. He proposed a daring idea—to completely earn an accredited degree in months instead of years based on personal study and experience. With my own positive experience in high school as extra motivation, I decided to pursue a degree full-speed-ahead.
Enrolling in Thomas Edison State College in the late fall of 2001, I transferred forty-five previously earned credits. After nine months of intense study, writing, and testing, I finished the seventy-five credits needed to earn my BA.
I was able to earn this credit so quickly by taking advantage of non-traditional credit-earning options; in my case, fifteen exams, six online courses, five portfolios, and numerous internships. Additionally, I went through several recommended self-study courses in accelerated reading, writing, and memorization that streamlined and enhanced my time spent learning even on topics I had never studied before.
Earning a degree through distance learning required a high level of personal motivation and perseverance, yet it was every bit worthwhile. Not only did I save years of time and thousands of dollars but I also received a personalized, high-quality education. Through distance learning I discovered a formal way to have informal learning acknowledged.
Credit by Exam – one of the best-kept secrets of college education is credit by exam. Credits that would traditionally take a semester or two to earn can be received by passing one comprehensive exam. Test topics range from freshman college composition to marketing, Spanish, computer technology, even “Shakespeare 101.” The tests are not easy, but they are certainly possible, especially for home schoolers who are accustomed to self-paced learning.
On average I found it took a week or two of intense study before I was prepared for each exam. More difficult exams, like accounting and “Introduction to World Religions,” took a bit longer. The majority of the content of college textbooks today is fluff (insignificant ideas and facts). By skimming over the minor ideas and focusing study on the major concepts, memory and retention accelerate greatly.
It is typical for test-takers not to pass the first few exams. I am grateful that my parents encouraged me to persevere after failing my first two exams. Better test preparation and experience helped me pass tests later; over half my degree was earned through credit-by-exam.
CLEP (College Level Examination Program) is the most popular college exam available. Other recognized, transferable options I used include DANTES and Thomas Edison exams.
One advantage to credit by exam is that you do not have to be enrolled in a college or even be a minimum age to take the tests. Most of the testing programs, including CLEP, will bank the credits for you until you are ready to enroll in the college of your choice. *Go to www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/clep/about.html for information about CLEP testing.
Online Courses – If you like the flexibility of studying on your own time but prefer having accountability from an instructor, on-line courses are made –to fit. The selection of online courses offered today is mind boggling. With e-mail and the Internet, you can pick classes and instructors from virtually every continent.
Each of the four colleges from which I took online courses had a similar procedure. Every few weeks I would read assigned text, write several essays in response to chapter questions, and then e-mail my assignments to a course mentor for grading. Sometimes there were online lectures and group discussions in which to participate. The course mentors were available to answer questions by phone, e-mail, or live chat.
Online courses are usually the most expensive of the credit-earning options unless taken from a junior college. In addition, online coursework is prone to reflect the philosophy of the instructor, so it is important to evaluate the course syllabus and textbook before enrolling. It is beneficial that Christian colleges and ministry organizations are taking advantage of virtual technology to create dynamic online courses and degree programs as well. Every month new courses are created.
Even those not interested in college credit can be involved in great learning experiences online. Several years ago I took a non-credit course, constitutional law, through HSLDA and absolutely loved it.
Portfolios – This is my favorite credit-earning method to share. Portfolios translate prior college-level experience and learning into college credits. Students of all ages, especially young adults with several years invested in apprenticeship or ministry, will want to take advantage of this credit-earning option.
Begin by taking a thorough inventory of your learning experiences. What special skills have you learned? Have you gained knowledge on a particular subject through personal study, classes, or workshops? Maybe you have participated in unique volunteer or ministry work. Music lessons, landscaping, counseling, home economics, computer skills, and mission trips are just a sampling of the activities eligible for credit.
As I did a personal-learning inventory, I realized God had given me an abundance of opportunities to develop public-speaking skills. My next step was searching catalogs from accredited colleges until I found a course description in public speaking that mirrored my own learning. Then I created a portfolio documenting my specific experience in this area and submitted it to my college for review for credit.
A portfolio encompasses two parts. The first part, the narrative, describes in detail (5-15 pages) how and when the learning took place. The second part is a compilation of documents, pictures, letters, and certificates verifying specific learning. It needs to prove in an orderly manner that the learning is worthy of college credit.
If the college of your choice does not have a portfolio department, you can apply for the portfolio credit at a college that does, then transfer the hours. My college, Thomas Edison, is just one of several colleges nationwide that specialize in accredited portfolio review. You will find there are many quality resources available on designing college portfolios.
In my degree work, I prepared five portfolios: one each in writing, religious music, and visual communications, and two in public speaking. Each took about a week of intense preparation. Had I known earlier in my degree process how enjoyable and rewarding writing a portfolio was, I probably would have planned to do a few more. Home schoolers have a tremendous advantage in preparing portfolios because they possess the rich influence of real-life, hands-on learning!
If you are like I was starting out, the variety of credit options seems a bit overwhelming. (I did not even have space to cover internships, summer-term courses, and independent-guided study.) If you think distance learning is something you want to learn more about, let me suggest a few resources to help you along the way.
1) Get Brad Voeller’s book Accelerated Distance Learning (ADL). This comprehensive volume will answer the multiplying list of questions you have about distance education. (I can already see them popping up in your head.) ADL is packed with college resources, Web sites, accelerated-study techniques, and up-to-date tips for those pursuing high-quality distance learning. You will find Mr. Voeller’s book practical and inspirational for both parent and student. I referenced my own copy constantly during my year of study, as my dog-eared, marked-up book testifies.
2) Check out a current edition of the “Official CLEP Study Guide” from your local library or purchase one of your own. This is another book that never left my desk. Perusing the pages, you will get a feel for each of the forty-eight subject exams CLEP offers and what needs to be studied. You may want to visit the CLEP Web site at www.collegeboard.com to get more information on CLEP-ing. Why not pick just one subject to study and take the test? You can do it!
3) An excellent resource package called “College in the Bag” is available through Global Learning Strategies – (830-885-5432. This kit includes Accelerated Distance Learning, the Princeton Cracking the CLEP, and the Dynamic Memory, Maximum Speed Reading, and Andrew Pudewa Advanced Communication Series study courses. It is everything you need to get started on your own distance learning adventure! As a bonus, THSC members receive a $25 discount on “College in the Bag. Check out their innovative coaching system which guides students step-by-step through this process.”
Start keeping records of experiences, training, writing, reading, etc., as these records can be organized later and submitted as evidence for portfolios. This is a good practice for parents, whether planning on college for their children or not. The records do not have to be fancy. Evidence can range from pictures to piano programs – anything that shows learning actually took place and was applied.
I hope you have caught some of my excitement for the rich possibilities of distance learning. Certainly the less-traveled path takes concentration to navigate and stamina to finish; but to be honest, the hardest part is just beginning, and you have already done that by reading this article. Personalized education in excellence on every level is worth faithfully pursuing.