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Posted at 05:24 PM ET, 02/10/2012

A bachelor’s degree for $10,000

How’s this for keeping college affordable: Excelsior College just rolled out a program that guarantees a bachelor’s degree for $10,000.

Excelsior is a nonprofit college in Albany that specializes in helping mid-career adults finish their studies. The school consolidates college credits in the same way a debt-relief service consolidates bills, helping returning students clean up their transcripts and finish their degrees.

The average -- average --Excelsior student arrives with credits from five different colleges. The typical Excelsior student is around 40, with a job and a family and about half a college education.

Excelsior helps students finish their degrees by cobbling together past credits, online coursework and course-credit exams.

The $10,000 degree initiative, announced Jan. 23, takes advantage of a new resource: free online college courses. Here’s how it works:.

Excelsior specializes in credit-by-examination: students complete coursework and then sit for an Excelsior College Examination that measures their knowledge in the subject, similar to the College Board’s College Level Exam Program.

In the past, students have paid for those courses, at a rate of $370 a credit, putting the cost of the average Excelsior degree at about $20,000.

Now, there’s a cheaper alternative. Faculty at Excelsior have matched each end-of-course exam to one or more free online courses. Students download the free course, complete it through independent study and then sit for the final exam.

Excelsior President John Ebersole says his institution is designed for the 85 percent of college students who are not of traditional age, studying full-time and living on campus.

“We see ourselves as being a post-traditional institution,” he said, in an interview Friday at The Washington Post. (He doesn’t like the term non-traditional, because it sounds negative.)

Excelsior’s original mission was as an “external degree” provider to the New York state university system. Now, it serves the “37 million people out there with some college and no degree,” Ebersole said.

Students who choose the $10,000, independent-study route are not left to work entirely on their own. It’s called “supported” independent study, and Excelsior says it operates round-the-clock tutoring and advising services.

The $10,000 is a maximum, incidentally; students can complete the coursework for less.

Some will be suspicious, no doubt, of the academic merits of this self-guided curriculum. Ebersole notes, though, that the free online courses come from the likes of MIT via the “open courseware” movement.

“This puts to lie the whole idea that you can’t have low price and high quality,” he said. “The quality is coming from Yale and MIT and Notre Dame and Berkeley.”

Cambridge and Oxford have both long offered credit by exam, Ebersole said; so that idea itself isn’t particularly novel.

Ebersole said the profit margin on his new program is “thinner than this piece of paper,” gesturing to the press packet his staffers had prepared.

But it’s an effort that, in his view, matches up nicely with the college affordability goals set last month by President Obama: It sets “responsible tuition policy,” provides “good value” and serves the needy. About one-third of Excelsior’s 34,000 students come from low-income homes.

By  |  05:24 PM ET, 02/10/2012

Categories:  Access, Finance, Online

 
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