Let's review what we've done so far.....
  • Introduced you to distance learning and independent study in post-secondary studies.
  • Evaluate schools to see which one best fits your goals.
  • Making sure you choose a legitimate, properly accredited school.
At this point we can assume that you are fully comforable with the concept of earning your degree via distance learning and independent study. But before I can dive into the actual roadmap, I still need to cover just a few more topics:
  • Earning college credit by examination (CLEP, DSST, ECE, TECEP, etc.)
  • The truth about completing degree requirements.
  • Which big 3 distance learning colleges is the best choice?

Excelsior, Charter Oak, or Thomas Edison?

As mentioned previously, for the purposes of the AS and BS degree roadmaps, I will use the "Big Three" distance learning schools, Excelsior, Thomas Edison, and Charter Oak Colleges as examples. These three colleges not only specalize in distance learning degree plans, but they are unique in that their plans offer a 0% residency requirement (i.e. no minimum courses that must be taken directly at the college).

I earned both my AAS in Electromechanical Studies and my BS in General Business from Excelsior College. See the proof of studies page for details.

What makes my website and others such as bain4weeks.com unique is that we actually did it. Very little of this is hypothetical. With the exception of a few credits transferred in from Georgia State University, GSU, from the time I enrolled in Excelsior College, I completed all core requirements for both Excelsior degrees in under 6 months.

I will once again use a table to more quickly disseminate the information. It will be followed by a brief qualitative opinion of each Big 3 college.
Now would be a good time to re-emphasize the disclaimer: The material contained within this website is the author's opinion and is NOT intended to be professional advice. The author makes NO claims whatsoever as to the accuracy of the material set forth within. The material contained statements are not necessarily endorsed by Excelsior College, Charter Oak State College, Thomas Edison State College, The College Board, DANTES, The Chauncy Group Int'l, Educational Testing Services, or any other company or institution mentioned within this website. If you so choose to imitate the examples set forth on these webpages in any way, shape, or form, do so at your own risk. By your continued use of this website, you agree to release the author of any and all liability that may result. For the full disclaimer text, click here.
COSC comes in second with it's graduation schedule:  every other month.  They tend to follow more with the traditional course offering schedule (fall, spring, and summer only).  Variety is also limited, but this point is irrelevant because, like Excelsior and Thomas Edison, you can simply transfer the requirement in from another regionally accredited college or credit exams.  They do NOT have any graduate-level programs yet, so you can only use it as a "stepping stone" to a master's or doctorate degree.

So, all-in-all, your best bet is to research which one is the best option and have an official evaluation to see where you stand.  If you are still not sure after self-investigation, you may have to bite the bullet and pay the enrollment fee for all 3 colleges to get the official evaluation (COSC is only about $200, the other 2 will run you $900+ each!).  For military members, use the military option, which will still get you enrolled and evaluated at a fraction of the cost ($200 for Excelsor and Charter Oak, $300 for Thomas Edison).  You can always switch back to the regular enrollment in the future :)
Comparing the "big 3" DL colleges
Other DL
Traditional Colleges
Full time enrollment?
No. All students have equal access to all facilities, virtual and otherwise they signed up for.
Yes - 12 semester hours (s.h.) per semester
Part-time enroll penalty?
Yes. Full time enrollment is calculated differently depending on the schedule of classes or degree plan structure.
Usually not
Yes. Some facilities, such as on-campus housing and gym facilities may be held for full-timers only.
Residency Requirement/ Transfer policy
0% All college-level credits transfer, subject to relevancy to major and academic policies in place at time of enrollment. If enrolled in a military option, there may be a 10% residency.
I've seen as low as 25% minimum residency.
50% or greater residency. Sometimes CLEP, DSST, etc. are not accepted.
Military enrollment and discounts?
Yes. Low, one-time fee for an official evaluation and continuous enrollment. No annual re-enrollment/ student services fee required. Military gets special discounted per-credit hour rates and even their own dept to handle service member inquiries.
Must re-marticulate every year to access student services. Military does still pay the in-state tuition rate.
(See Excelsior to the left)
May/may not have a military enrollment option. For state schools, military will usually always get the in-state rate. Always check if it is ROTC-affiliated*
Admisssions requirements and deadlines
21+ years old. High School diploma or equivilant. Usually a minimum of 12 transferrable s.h. already earned from a previous regionally accredited university, military, CLEP, etc. Exceptions to the age requirement can be made on a case-by-case basis for motivated youngsters. May need parent approval if under 18.

Year-round enrollment into the school. Allow 4-10 weeks for an official eval to be complete.  For classes: Excelsior, every other month; TESC: monthly, COSC, 3 times a year.
May require an admissions essay and/or minimum SAT/ACT scores. May need parental approval if under 18.

Usually year-round enrollment. Courses are offered quarterly or more thoughout the year.
Usually requires minimum SAT/ACT scores. Several admissions essays and personal interviews with admissions staff may also be required. May have to play a sport for certain scholarships.

Deadlines for various admissions documentation starts 4 months - 1 year prior to semester term desired.
Acceptance of credit by examination, corporate/ military training, licenses, portfolio assessment, etc.
Yes. Some examples include AP, CLEP**, DSST, ECE, TECEP, GRE*** Ohio Uni Exams, Microsoft/Novell certification exams, FAA licenses, Nursing licenses, corporate training programs, MOS/A/tech military schools and follow-on training, and almost anything else evaluated and recommended credit by the ACE. The "big 3" have the most generous transfer policies, and traditional schools are more stringent.
Financial Aid & Scholarship info
NOT a Title IV school, so no federal monies such as Pell Grant. All private scholarships and loans, MGIB, etc. are still accepted. Military options are available.
Usually Title IV approved schools. Military and state residents get the in-state rates. Most private scholarships and loans accepted. Military enrollment options may be available.
Same as left, but also check for ROTC scholarships*
On-campus facilities
Relies heavily on virtual chat, virtual libraries, databases, and internet resources for academic references.
< < <---   A combination of these 2 extremes   ---> > >
Brick-n-mortar gym, pools, arcades, tennis and basketball courts, computer labs, libraries, cafés, etc.
In-house graduate- level programs?
Yes @ the Masters level. Check website for most recent programs. Eligibility requirements similar for undergrad admissions, but of course you must have a BA/BS from a regionally accredited school.
No. Currently only associate and bachelor programs available.
Varies depending on the school. Can be just associates degrees or goes all the way up to Doctorate-level programs.
post-graduate career services?
Available. Doesn't look fully developed yet, though.
Yes, but varies with each school.
Degree plan types
structured majors in applied science, nursing, engineering and technology.
Flexibile concentrations which allow a more customized focus.
Either majors or concentration types depending on the school.
Other DL
Traditional Colleges
* Reserve Officer Training Corps, ROTC is a military scholarship that pays full tuition, fees, books, and even gives a monthly stipend. In return, you must incur a 8-year military service obligation (usually a minimum of 3 of those years on full-time, active duty). Each branch has it's own ROTC program, and minimum qualifications. For more information, check out the following: Navy/Marine Corps ROTC, Air Force ROTC, Army ROTC. Also look into Air National Guard and Army National Guard federal and state level scholarships. Don't forget about the academies, either which are linked  to on the respective ROTC website.

**Excelsior only require 3 s.h. of a written english requirement. They do NOT allow the CLEP English Comp with Essay to satisfy that. You must take it in school or take either AP English or ECE English Composition. TESC and COSC require 6 english comp credits and accept any of the tests mention to satisfy requirements.

***Excelsior awards up to 30 lower/upper level credits for many of the Subject Graduate Record Examinations (GREs) depending on the percentile. Charter Oak awards up to 18-24 credits for getting 40% or above in certain subject GRE exams. Not bad for only a $130 test! 

**** Other DL Programs refer to other regionally accredited colleges that offer distance learning options. Do NOT confuse with diploma mills or non-regionally accredited schools.
College credit by examination

We've already evaluated taking in-class courses vs. taking courses over the internet or by mail. Now we'll talk briefly about another major way of earning college credits: testing. In fact, this website was built around the exam method of earning college credits.

Believe it or not, not many people are even aware of what a CLEP is. The easiest way to explain it is to think back to high school where some students were in rolled in Advanced Placement, AP classes i.e. AP Chemestry, AP History, AP English, AP Calculus, etc. They took a test at the end of the year, and if they earned a certain score on that test (usually a 3 out of 5), they were exempt or awarded college credit in that particular subject area.

Well the College Level Examination Program, CLEP, is exactly the same way, without having to attend a class! You simply schedule to take the test, walk in and take the test, and, if you receive a passing score, you've earned anywhere between 3 and 12 college semester credits! Other examples of credit by examination programs include:
Excelsior College Examinations
Information Technology (IT) Vendor Certification Examinations (Microsoft, CompTIA, etc.)
Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) Subject Tests
Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) Subject Standardized Tests, DSST

Thomas Edison College Examination Program (TECEP)
Ohio University Examinations

Is it really that easy? Well, yes and no. Basically, these tests measure acheivement of understanding of a particular college-level subject area. These programs are HIGHLY independent study programs in which you would usually either have previous work experience or have significantly mastered the concepts of the subject matter tested.

In other words, just like you would have to study for a professor's exam, you will have to study for these exams as well.
Completing degree requirements

Remember high school when you had to take certain classes before you graduated? A college degree plan is the exact same thing. Think of a degree plan as a checklist. There are a series of requirements that must be completed in order for the objective (degree completion and graduation) to be fulfilled. It's that easy. These are usually:

General Education Requirements (GenEd)
- Written English (composition, literature, information literacy)
- Natural Sciences (biology, chemestry, physics, etc)
- Quantitative Reasoning (college algebra, statistics, etc.)
- Humanities (ethics, art, music, philosophy, etc.)
- Social sciences (psychology, sociology, political science, etc.)
- History (US history, [country] history, etc.)
- World relations (foreign language, ethics, political science, etc.)
Core requirements for the major or concentration
- differs slightly from college to college and for different majors (e.g. some common business core requirements are: statistics, macro/microeconomics, finance, business law, etc.)

There are typically 2 types of electives:
- area-specific electives (e.g. a business elective might be 'Labor Relations' or 'Human Resource Mgmt')
- Free electives (any college level course)

What is the difference between lower level credit vs. upper level credit?
Upper level is supposed to be more difficult than lower level. Usually your lower level courses are introductory or beginning courses, numbered on a transcript with a 100 or  200 or has a 'LL' or 'L' designation.  Upper-level is increased difficulty in a more specific area of study, usually numbered 300 or 400 or has a 'UL' or 'U' designation. In a traditional college degree plan, your upper level classes mostly dealt with major-specific topics. The lower-level courses were usually your GenEd requirements.

Side note: as you probably guessed, graduate courses are typically numbered 500 or above.
What is duplicate credit?
Duplication occurs when you take 2 college courses that have the same material. Say you take Intro to Psychology at one school and then take psychology 101 at another school. It will probably be considered duplicate credit and therefore only one of those classes will count as credits towards your degree. Unless you are retaking a course for a failed grade or to improve your existing grade, you typically want to avoid duplication.

*Requirements and policies differ from college to college. Always double-check with an academic advisor in the school in which you are seeking a degree to see if the courses/tests you are taking will properly fulfill degree requirements.

Do not get bogged down with the details. I originally was just going to put the roadmap up and that was it. But then I realized that some visitors may not have even attended college yet or fully understand the process. Much of the extra information presented in this website is for those who would like to start from scratch as well as those already possess some college credits. For all practical purposes, concentrate the majority of your time on "putting the checks in the block" (fulfilling degree requirements) and getting that all-important "piece of paper" so that you can move on with your career.

In the BS roadmap pages that follow, I will give some specifics as to what to study for each specific exam mentioned.  For more information on studying for college credit exams, see the study guides chapter. I've also written an entirely seperate website, 120collegecredits.com for more information on credit by examination.

My AS and BS roadmap will concentrate mostly on CLEP, DSST, and ECE exams, as these are the most widely accepted exams.
Major vs. Concentration degrees

You are probably wondering at this point what the difference is. There is no significant difference in terms of the objective of the outcome which is to familiarize yourself more with the area of study. Major-type degree plans are usually very structured, checklist-type layouts. Everyone who majors in the same field will, with the exception of electives, take similar classes or do similar coursework. You simply "check off" what you accomplish as you go. Once you finish all the classes/tests required for your degree, you graduate. Your diploma will say AA,AS,BS,BA,etc. in [your major here].

With a concentration-type degree you still have certain number and types of courses to take to finish the degree. But rather than having a major, you have what is called a concentration. The concentration allows greater flexibility in that majors are usually limited to certain strict fields of study (e.g. Human Resource Mgmt, Nutrition, Psychology, etc.) whereas concentrations can be in ANY academic or professional topic or field of study as long as you can back it up with an essay explaining why.

You see, anyone could make up a field of study and claim that the courses that they've taken relate to that field of study. But you must prove academically why your courses actually fit the area of study (concentration) that you are seeking approval. This is done in the form of an essay which is really much like a research paper. In includes all the courses or tests that you plan to take to complete the degree requirements for the concentration and how it would benefit society, how  This essay gets reviewed by your academic advisor and even goes before some academic board that grants final approval or kicks it back for further revision.

So you can't just CLEP a whole bunch of courses, invent a concentration, say 'college testing studies', and have a degree (unless you could back it up in writing). Once your concentration proposal is approved, it then becomes your official degree plan and roadmap to graduation. Another obvious advantage to the concentration-type degree is that, unlike a major, there are many different degree plans that could be acceptable for one concentration.
The "major" for concentration degrees is actually 'General Studies' and will be printed on your diploma as such. However, in most cases, the concentration is NOT placed on the diploma (which to me is stupid). Another "drawback" to concentration-type degree plans is that if you are doing a specialized program, such as engineering, it may not be accredited by the additional accreditation agencies that may be required for recognition at your job or career (in this case, Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, ABET).

Note: The specialized accreditation, such as ABET, is in addition to the regional accreditation. Charter Oak and many other concentration-type degree issuers are still regionally accredited. It should also be noted that, at least with COSC, concentrations only apply to the bachelors, NOT the associates.
So the question still lingers in your head...Which one is better: concentration or major?  I would have to lean more towards the major.  Personally, I prefer that put-the-checks-in-the-block-and-then-graduate system.  The concentration-type leave open too much room for delay in graduation because your concentration proposal was kicked back for [board reason here].  As discussed earlier, certain specialized programs, such as nursing, engineering, etc, may require additional accreditation beyond regional accreditation, which concentration-type degree plans lack!  A more structured major-type degree plan would be easier to accredit then the more arbitrary concentration-type.  If you are going more towards a liberal arts degree, maybe a concentration may give you the flexibility that you need.  For technology, sciences, etc. degrees, stick with the major.

As mentioned in the college selection chapter, only you can best determine which college or university is best for your educational and career pursuits.  My purpose in life is simply to give you some helpful tools and direction so that you can make a more informed choice!

How can you tell if it is a major or concentration-type degree plan?
  Simply ask the academic advisors or check the degree catalog for that school.
Final Verdict

I will have to go with Excelsior College. In my opinion, one of the main things you look for in a DL program (besides accreditation, of course :) is how many credits will they accept towards the degree major you are seeking. Especially if you already have a lot of previous course work. They probably have the most lenient degree requirements for their Business and Liberal arts degrees.

They have the most structured major-type degree programs and degree catalog publications of all 3 schools evaluated. Their engineering and nursing programs are accredited by ABET and NLNAC, respectively. They have an excellent military enrollment discount program. They graduate students every month, making it easier to move on with career goals and objectives. They have a Master's of Arts in Liberal Studies, MS in Nursing, and soon they will have an MBA program for those who want to move on further without leaving the college. Plus, you can get up to 30 undergrad credits for acing any of the subject GREs.
But they only graduate people 4 times a year and have a 4-6 weeks prior deadline for each graduation date in terms of making sure all transcripts are in, coursework completed, etc.  Excelsior's cutoff is only 3 weeks prior, and can be less than that with certain special circumstances.  TESC's BS nursing programs are accredited by NLNAC, but the engineering programs are not ABET.  In order to have an official review of your credits, you must enroll which for non-residents is as much as $1800+ other fees.  Of course, military members can always either enroll under the military option, or get the in-state enrollment rate.  All in all, TESC and Excelsior can go neck in neck in terms of structure and efficiency of course offerings.

Charter Oak State College.  While I rank this one last, this by no means makes it any less of a choice than the other 2.  I've read in a few degree forums that Charter Oak has some of the best customer service of all the degrees.  In terms of "major" flexibility, it is almost fully customizable, provided you can back it up in an essay.  They offer an official evaluation option for about $200 in which you can see how close you are without having to chunk out a whole $1000 or more to enroll (marticulate) before seeing where you stand.  A Title IV school as well, so financial aid planning is a little easier.  Probably the fastest way to earn an Associates degree out of all 3 (remember, no concentration requirement for the associates at Charter Oak).  And don't forget the 18-24 credits awarded for the subject GREs.
On the other side of the coin, they are not a Title IV school and currently do not have a full-sized campus with actual classrooms, libraries, computer labs, etc.  Due to their increased popularity, e-mail is the primary way of communication with the staff.  Sometimes response can be delayed, not answered correctly, or not answered at all unless you stay on top of them (this is a problem with many DL programs in different schools).

Thomas Edison State College is very close behind and in many cases is ahead of Excelsior.  It is a Title IV school, so you could apply for Federal Financial Aid.  They have a full-fledged, brick-and-mortar college.  They offer many more classes every month out of the year versus Excelsior's bi-monthly, limited class selection.  They also have a cost-saving military enrollment option.  Very liberal in terms of prior-learning assessment and non-traditional learning courses.  In all honesty, this school has it all together in terms distance learning.
[update January 24, 2005]

COSC now has a military option.  Click here for details.
Study for the exams:
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