Taking CLEP Exams to Save Over $10,000 on College Costs

CLEP ExamWhen it comes to education costs, there are a myriad of ways to save money.  In my article Planning and Paying For College I touched on the usefulness of taking CLEP exams.  CLEP exams are simply a test you take to demonstrate you have the knowledge in a subject equivalent to that which would be gained by taking a course.  Each college handles CLEP exams differently so it is really important to look into the details before taking the tests. It is possible to save over $10,000 using CLEP exams.

My Experience with Taking CLEP Exams:

When I first starting taking college courses I had heard I could “test out” of the Intro to Computer Literacy course.  I researched this and talked to the admissions office at the college. They gave me a list of CLEP exams, how many credits I get for passing each one, and which courses they are equivalent to.  I’m a pretty good test taker, but I was certainly nervous.  I did not study for it at all and I barely passed it.  Taking a test for 1 hour kept me from having to spend 45 hours in a classroom, plus whatever other amount of extra work the class had.  At the time I didn’t think I could pass any of the other tests, so I didn’t think about it again for several years.

About 7 years later I was nearing the completion of my Bachelor’s degree.  I always took my required courses first so that I would have flexibility on the back end of my degree with which classes I could take and where.  I spoke with my admissions officer at Siena Heights University and found out that I could take CLEP exams to fill in the gaps.  At this point I had already taken 2 of my electives and I needed 6 more credits.  The CLEP exam Analyzing and Interpreting Literature would give me 6 credits so I decided to take it.  I bought the study guide and studied all of the concepts needed over a week.  The exam was more challenging than I expected, but I still passed it.

Using CLEP exams saved me about $1,000 in tuition and fees, and also saved me a decent amount of time.  I certainly wish that I had taken a more serious look at CLEP exams when I was in school, I could have saved a few thousand more dollars, and a lot of time. It’s important to note that regardless of if you take CLEP exams and/or go to a community college first, the end degree still says the same thing. Taking CLEP exams do not hurt your degree in any way. Taking CLEP exams helped me graduate with a Bachelors degree for under $13,000.

Taking CLEP Exams at Different Schools: SHU VS MSU VS WMU.

Different schools allow different amounts of transfer credits and CLEP credits, and different schools award a different amount of credit for every CLEP exam. SHU may give 6 credits for this course while MSU gives only 3. This is why it is extremely important to talk to someone at your school to find out how to incorporate CLEP exams into your college strategy.

A big difference between Siena Heights University and Michigan State University is that Siena Heights allows a total of 90 credits towards a bachelor degree to be from another institution, while Michigan State University limits this to 60 credits.  This provides a serious limiting factor for someone transferring from a community college to Michigan State as far as taking CLEP exams are concerned.  By earning an associates degree at a community college, a Michigan State transfer student may not be able to earn any more credits through the CLEP program.  In the same situation, a student at Siena Heights may still earn up to 30 credits from other sources, including CLEP, with a maximum of 36 credit hours of CLEP exams for credit towards a bachelors degree.

The course I took, Analyzing and Interpreting Literature, will earn 6 credits at Siena Heights, but only 3 credits at MSU, and no credits at Western Michigan University.  On the other hand, for the Algebra CLEP exam Western will award 6 credits, while Michigan State will award 3 credits and Siena Heights won’t award any.  Research is your friend when it comes to making CLEP count.

Strategy For Taking CLEP Exams:

1. Take CLEP exams for basic course while attending community college or University.

For a good test taker and independent learner, I would suggest starting with CLEP early.  Take 1 test at a time, and give a solid week or 2 in between to study for each test.  Most community colleges will allow up to 30 credits total to be CLEP credits.  If I had to do everything over again I would have aimed to get at least 15 credits from CLEP for my basic classes. CLEP exams for basic courses that are requirements for almost every college:

  • History of US 1
  • History of US 2
  • Principles of Macro Econ
  • Principles of Macro Econ
  • Intro to Psychology
  • English Literature
  • College Comp (NOTE Essays required)
  • College Mathematics
  • College Algebra
  • Chemistry
  • Biology

A lot of these courses are an either/or for most colleges, Either Chemistry or Biology, Either History 1 or History 2, etc. But the point is from this set you can probably get an entire semester of college done through CLEP for the basic courses. At community college this may not save a ton of money, but it will save time.  Getting 15 credits on the front end knocked out is the way to go, especially if you are attending a 4 year university.

5 CLEP exams at $100 each (assuming paying $20 for a study guide) is $500. 15 credits at a community college is $1,965, not including any books or room and board fees.   That’s $1,500 of money in real savings.  Coupled with prudent use of the American Opportunity Tax Credit and you could be looking at an associates degree costing only a couple grand.

The savings are much larger at a four year school.  At Michigan State University costs are $430 per credit hour. For a student who chose to attend a four year school instead of transferring over would save around $6,000 on tuition, plus another $4,400 on room and board for a total savings of $10,400!

2. Take CLEP exams for electives at University.

Most bachelor degree programs have a certain number of electives built in. These classes can be anything and just need to get you to the 120 credit mark.  Taking CLEP exams for electives is a smart way to go.  You can’t take a CLEP exam for an equivalent course you already have credit for, but there are a variety of courses offered. The best thing about taking CLEP exams for electives is that for anyone pursuing a  4 year degree these exam credits are offsetting the university prices from tuition.

Taking 5 CLEP exams at a total cost of $500 is much better than taking 15 credits at $6,500 PLUS $4,400 saved in room and board.  Studying and taking just 5 of these tests could get you done a semester early and Save $10,000 off the total cost of schooling.  This number doubles  from $10,900 to $21,800 if you can hit 30 credits. (15 credits for basic courses and 15 credits for electives). Below is a breakdown of how much money using CLEP exams can save you.

Even though all the numbers I used assume 3 credits per CLEP exam, this is not always the case. Many schools will award more than 3 credits for an individual CLEP test.  I received 6 credits for taking Analyzing and Interpreting Literature, and Michigan State University awards a whopping 16 credits for completing either the French or German Language II. In this scenario a $100 exam could save Almost $7,000 in tuition AND $4,400 in room and board by finishing a semester early.

The chart below shows total tuition cost savings using the strategies mentioned above for students going to community college route and for students going straight to university.  In the chart the assumption is made that the student (or the students parents) will qualify for and be able to take full advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

CLEP Exams

Note: CLEP exam costs are not able to be used for the American Opportunity Tax Credit, however expenses other than tuition and fees are, such as books and supplies purchased for school AND pre-paid expenses for the following year. Using CLEP, the retail cost for 2 years at community college drops to below $4,000 per year (the maximum amount of expenses eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit, but with the cost of books added and pre-paying part of the tuition for the following year, the credit can be maximized.

Taking CLEP exams can save tens of thousands of dollars. Even if you only use CLEP exams for 12 -15 elective credits it is still enough to save half a year at school and over $10,000 in costs.  That extra semester also allows for more time to be earning money instead of sitting in a classroom. I certainly plan to encourage my children to study for and take CLEP exams in order to save money on college expenses.


Have you taken any CLEP exams? What was your experience like?

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. John is the author of the book For My Children's Children: A Practical Guide For Building Generational Wealth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *