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Practical Homeschooling® :

College from a Hospital Bed

By Theodore Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #80, 2008.

Thanks to the internet and the hard work/creativity of online teachers and students, life's interruptions don't need to stop you from getting that college degree anymore.
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In issue #46, Practical Homeschooling published an article by homeschool graduate Brad Voeller about how to graduate college in six months. Now here is my inspiring story of how I managed the same feat in only four years (five if you count the year spent taking CLEP exams). Along the way, I ended up collecting college credit from a much wider variety of sources than I could have initially imagined.

A little background might help here. I caught a nasty case of double pneumonia when I was 15, which put me in the hospital for two months and almost killed me. I came out of the hospital with a tracheostomy (a shortcut from the neck to the lungs) and had to stay on a respirator most of the time. While I did gradually recover, I remained reliant on medical equipment for my continued survival, thus making a traditional campus-based college plan unrealistic.

Just to make things worse, I also had severe scoliosis, so even after I fully recovered from the pneumonia, colds remained dangerous. Doctors recommended that I have a spinal fusion operation to straighten my spine and improve my lung capacity. I broke one of the hooks on my lower spine by sitting up too soon after the first operation, so a second operation was needed, after which I had to lie flat on my back for three months. Colds periodically put me in bed for weeks and made me lose weight. I was as low as 95 pounds at one point, and it took years more to get me to my current, relatively healthy weight of 140.

In any case, distance learning seemed the way to go for a college degree, especially considering that by then I was working part-time as a programmer and web designer. But which college should I pick? We researched a number of different options, and decided to go with Thomas Edison State College (motto: "Higher Education For Adults with Higher Expectations"). As a college founded and operated by the state of New Jersey, TESC is fully accredited, which is vital when considering a degree via distance learning.

TESC (www.tesc.edu) offered all the courses necessary for a degree in Business Administration (the one Brad Voeller earned), but since the same was unfortunately not true of their Computer Science degrees, I was going to have to get a bit creative. More on that later.

I spent the first year (2002-2003) finishing my high school graduation requirements and collecting college credit from CLEP tests (Humanities, Natural Sciences, Biology, Marketing, Psychology, Precalculus). I basically just bought a college textbook for each subject area, studied the material, and took the CLEP test at our local community college. TESC charges by the year (now $6,150 for a full-service first year, or $2300 for basic enrollment plus per-credit fees-somewhat less for each if you're a New Jersey resident), so anything that could limit the number of years was obviously a plus. I already had some college credit from earlier AP tests (English Composition, European History, Computer Science, Macroeconomics) but much preferred the CLEP format, since CLEP tests are taken on a computer rather than by hand, and I had already gotten burned once on an AP exam because I couldn't physically transfer my answers to the answer sheet fast enough. Compared to tuition costs, of course, either exam was an improvement-$84 for an AP exam, or $65 for a CLEP, versus hundreds or thousands of dollars for an equivalent campus-based or online course.

The next year (2003-2004) marked my first foray into college courses. TESC offered two types of distance-learning courses-online and guided study-and I began by choosing online C++ and guided study Calculus. I wanted to be able to interact with other students, but I didn't feel that Calculus, with all of its symbols and diagrams, would be well suited to an online format. I found the online course to be simple to use and good at keeping me on schedule, plus teacher response was a lot faster than when I had to mail in my assignments and wait for the results to be mailed back. Guided-study assignments didn't always make it back in time to be helpful in studying for exams. Granted, online study would have been even worse for Calculus, and a third option was needed. More on that later.

Over the next couple years (2004-2006), I completed a variety of other courses (Technical Writing, Discrete Math, Calculus II, Operating Systems, etc.), as well as 12 credits of portfolio review (CGI/PERL, WWW Technologies, HTML/CGI, and Principles of Christian Faith). To earn portfolio review credit, you must first find a course offered by an accredited college that is demonstrably equivalent to work you have completed or knowledge you have acquired. Then you put together a report proving your mastery of the material. Since I was working with subjects I knew well, portfolio review took less than a day per credit, plus I could gain credit for subjects that had no available standardized tests. It was an easy way to quickly fill in some credits.

By this time, however, it was becoming obvious that I would have to do at least some of my advanced-level degree requirements outside of TESC. TESC just didn't offer all of the necessary courses for my major, and they weren't helpful about finding substitutes, either. Since I was now well enough to take some campus-based classes, we considered transferring my existing credits to University of Missouri-St. Louis and having me complete my degree program there, but UMSL would have required some 24 additional humanities credits on top of my TESC requirements-a year of wasted time and money.

We decided that it was better for me to just do individual courses where I could and then transfer them back to TESC. I did two courses in person at UMSL (Programming Languages, Algorithms) and two at St. Louis Community College-Meramec (Calculus III, Logic). In retrospect, I probably should have done at least Calculus II at Meramec as well, since I enjoyed Calculus III in person a lot more than Calculus I and Calculus II through guided study. It also cost less. I highly recommend community college for any math-based (or lab science) courses.

I still needed a couple courses to finish off my degree program in early 2007, but nothing was conveniently scheduled at local colleges. We googled around and found another accredited online program, Regis College for Professional Studies (cps.regis.edu). Their courses cost a bit more ($435 per credit hour) and were set at a summer-school pace (two months per course), but I could get those last few credits without having to wait, and the courses offered included several interesting subjects. I chose Unix Operating Systems and Database Programming, the former as independent study (one-on-one assignments via email) and the latter as an online course. Feedback for both was swift, and my fellow students in the online course seemed a lot more talkative than those at TESC. Granted, actually registering for courses online was next to impossible, and I finally had to give up and call in to register, but it was worth the extra effort.

Now I had to finally get my last credits transferred in and okayed so I could file for graduation. TESC kept misapplying credits on the online credit audit, and it took several calls to the academic advisement department to make sure that I was actually graduating and not coming up short on one or more requirements. But I finally made it through that, filed for graduation, and was okayed for official graduation at the next graduation period. I had a photo taken locally wearing Dad's cap and gown, and we bought a frame for my graduation certificate. Class rings and an official graduation ceremony (in Trenton, NJ) were also available if I'd wanted them. I graduated with honors, and my five-year journey was finally complete!

To sum up, my degree consisted of:

  • AP testing: 21 credits
  • CLEP testing: 30 credits
  • Meramec courses: 8 credits
  • UMSL courses: 6 credits
  • Regis courses: 6 credits
  • TESC portfolio review: 12 credits
  • TESC courses: 44 credits

This was actually 7 credits more than the 120 I needed, since not all credits were a perfect fit, but better too many than too few... Here's what my degree would cost, in today's prices (not counting textbooks and miscellaneous fees). If my health had been a little better, I could have done this program more quickly and probably eliminated at least one year of TESC fees, lowering the cost even further.

  • AP exams: $336
  • CLEP exams: $390
  • Meramec courses: $648
  • UMSL courses: $1,410
  • Regis courses: $2,610

  • TESC annual fees: $6,150 first year comprehensive. Allows you to take up to 36 credits of TESC courses, plus unlimited access to their "TECEP" exams for the year (exams you can take to demonstrate you have mastered course content). $5,350 per year for two additional years of comprehensive.

  • TESC per-credit fees: $250/credit x 19 credits is $4,750

Total if doing this program today: $26,994. My cost was about $6,000 less, which just goes to show how quickly tuition prices are rising.

NOTE: In-state tuition for NJ residents is $4,300 (first year of comprehensive) and $3,580 (subsequent year of comprehensive).

Clearly, your best plan, financially speaking, is to use CLEP and community college for as many courses as possible, then try to finish your TESC degree in two years or less. Even so, this option might actually cost more than going to community college and transferring to a campus-based program with a good scholarship.

Since TESC doesn't allow you to start its program until age 21, it's probably not the best choice for students looking to get into a distance-learning program right after high school. Still, it was a good choice for my situation. If I were to do it all over again, the only change I'd make would be to take more of my math-based courses at the local community college, as math via guided study turned out to be extremely painful.

I recommend distance learning (either at TESC or elsewhere) to anyone who has a large amount of knowledge that can be applied to portfolio review, or to anyone who lacks the physical ability to attend a full schedule of campus-based classes. To everyone else: If the courses you need are not available at the right times in your college schedule, distance learning is a tool you can still use to fill in those holes. Custom-fit your degree program to yourself, not the other way around-it's the homeschooling way.

Theodore Pride is the oldest of Bill and Mary Pride's children. He has been the webmaster of Homeschool World since 1994. Currently, he also consults on projects for a number of other websites. Ted holds a Bachelors degree in Applied Science and Technology with a Computer Science focus from Thomas Edison State College, where he also earned the Arnold Fletcher Award. He is a member of Alpha Sigma Lambda, the premier national honor society for adults in higher education.

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