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Credit-by-examination programs

One of the most widely known benefits of military service is the work experience, education and real world training it provides. One of the most overlooked, however, is servicemembers' ability to convert this knowledge into college credit through DOD-supported credit-by-examination programs, all without ever stepping foot in a civilian classroom.

What are credit-by-examination programs?

Like most other education programs and benefits, credit-by-examination programs are regulated by the Department of Defense's Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES). These programs allow servicemembers, their spouses, and civilian employees to earn civilian college credits through subject-based examinations. In some cases, passing scores can apply toward professional certifications, namely teaching or nursing certificates.

The three major credit-by-examination programs available to military servicemembers are as follows:

  1. DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST)
  2. College Level Exam Program (CLEP)
  3. Excelsior College Exam (ECE)

Only the DSSTs are administered by the Department of Defense. The remaining credit-by-examination programs are civilian-run, but open to military personnel. For the most part, DANTES administers these exams through military-based testing centers, waves or discounts testing fees, and provides study materials to eligible servicemembers and their spouses without cost.

DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST)

DANTES Subject Standardized Tests allow test-takers to earn about three units of college credit through an exam rather than a traditional class. DSSTs are administered through DANTES, so while they're open to civilians, these exams were created with military servicemembers in mind.

How much do DSSTs cost? Those who take DSSTs at one of 500 military installations nationwide can do so at no cost. Servicemembers and military spouses who choose to take them at civilian facilities typically need to pay about $70 per exam in registration fees.

What does a passing DSST score mean? Those who pass receive college credit in one of thousands of schools and colleges.

What DSST subjects are available? DSST exams are available in the following subjects:

  • Math
  • Science
  • Business
  • Technology
  • Humanities

How to get started. To take advantage of DSST benefits, servicemembers should contact their Education Services Officer to determine eligibility and find a testing center near them.

College Level Examination Programs (CLEP)

Like the DSSTs, the College Level Exam Programs allow test-takers to earn college credit through examinations. In this case, 90-minute exams in either broad or specific subjects can be taken for credit. Unlike the DSSTs, however, CLEP tests are civilian administered. Still, DANTES provides some study and financial support to soldiers, some military spouses, and civilian military employees.

How much do CLEP tests cost? Exams are free for eligible servicemembers reporting to on-base DANTES test centers. DANTES covers all but a small registration fee for soldiers, some spouses, and civilian military employees at civilian centers.

What does a passing CLEP score mean? As with other credit-by-examination programs, those with passing scores on any CLEP exam receive comparable college credit at one of nearly 3,000 schools and colleges nationwide.

What CLEP subjects are available? Servicemembers can choose from a wide array of general and subject-specific CLEP examinations. According to The College Board, CLEP subject exams are available in 33 subjects within the following disciplines:

  • Composition and Literature
  • Foreign Languages
  • History and Social Sciences
  • Science and Mathematics
  • Business

How to get started. CLEP is a civilian program, but one's Education Services Officer can determine eligibility for military-sponsored support.

Excelsior College Exams (ECE)

As with the previous credit-by-examination programs, ECEs allow test-takers to earn college credit through tests. Unlike the DSSTs and CLEP exams, however, those who pass ECE exams can apply their credits toward nursing and teaching certifications in addition to traditional degrees. ECEs are managed by the American Council on Education (ACE), a civilian organization.

How much do ECE tests cost? DANTES covers all costs associated with the ECE exams for all active duty, National Guard and Reserve personnel

What does a passing ECE score mean? Passing an ECE grants the test-taker college credit not just at Excelsior College, which administers them, but at hundreds of additional schools nationwide. The ACE determines how much credit each exam is worth annually.

What ECE subjects are available? ECE exams are available in a number of subjects within the following disciplines:

  • Art & Science
  • Business
  • Education
  • Nursing

How to get started. As with all credit-by-examination programs, soldiers should contact their Education Services Officers to determine benefit eligibility and to locate military-based testing centers.