What is a DIY degree?

The good ol’ college degree isn’t what it used to be. This doesn’t mean a college education no longer has value, but the value it holds must be approached differently than decades ago. Though college costs can vary greatly, a bachelor’s degree still leaves the average graduate with around $36,000 in student loans, with the median student loan debt for all borrowers being more than $49,000.

So what hope is there in going to college without incurring student loans?

Though there are many paths to getting a higher education, I would love to share my own experience. After high school, I went to Greenville University in southern Illinois. Making lifelong friends and getting the chance to manage my own schedule were wonderful benefits of going away to college. However, the class structure, price tag, and courses that had nothing to do with my professional aspirations were very unappealing to me.

While attending Greenville I enrolled in a Music Business program, but quickly realized this degree was not going to provide leverage for any of my long-term goals. On top of that, I would incur thousands of dollars of debt! I decided to try a semester at a local community college, only to become more frustrated. Trying college at multiple brick-and-mortar schools confirmed that I felt trapped in a classroom, which ultimately pushed me to explore alternative options. In my search, I was introduced to a DIY degree program which seemed to fit my interests, work ethic, budget, and personal schedule.

The DIY degree is a hybrid approach to college that condenses nearly all of the “middle man” factors in traditional universities. At the core of the DIY degree is a surprisingly simple system. By utilizing the College Level Examination Programs (CLEPs) and DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSSTs), students are able to gain college credits by successfully passing these tests. The DIY programs encourage students to study for these tests similarly to those who attend physical colleges. The benefit of this is that these tests typically cost around $100 and can be re-taken 90 days later if not passed.

These programs are usually taken through one of three colleges. The DIY community affectionately calls them the “Big Three”- Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College, and CharterOak State College. It is important to know that these colleges do not allow students to test out of an entire degree; 25-30% of your final credits must be school-accredited classes. If you have credits from other schools (like I did), you can see if your current college will accept these credits toward the degree you are obtaining.

By following a DIY program, I was able to obtain a Bachelor’s of Health Science degree from Excelsior College. They provided many great career resources for their graduates, and I was able to graduate without student loans in a fraction of the time. There are many resources for learning about DIY degrees, but a great free resource is http://www.degreeforum.net/mybb/

The DIY programs are not the only customizable approach to obtaining high-quality education. Companies like Udacity are the forerunners of widely-accessible education with programs tailored specifically for in-demand career skills. Great companies like Google, Amazon, IBM, and Mercedes-Benz often recruit graduates from Udacity Nanodegree programs. After paying an upfront cost, students are welcomed into a self-paced learning track where they generate skills by completing real-world projects. Upon finishing, most paid Udacity programs include career services that help students land a job in their desired field.

Often times, the best way to avoid student loans is to think about college differently. If you’re interested in learning about other methods for avoiding student loans, I’d also encourage you to attend the College Planning 101 class at Willow Creek at 7 p.m., Monday, February 19. Click here for more information or to register. 

If you have specific questions about our classes, click here or email us at [email protected].

Written by Financial Stewardship Volunteer Brad Johnson. 


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