How to Earn a College Degree Debt Free

Candice eetimesI earned a BS by examination in ’82, and was admitted to Stanford Graduate School that fall, debt free.

Some expansion is warranted here, as many are confused by my statement on “by examination”.  I had about one year of Jr. College, mostly general ed requirements, earned at four different Jr. Colleges over about five or six years, taking one or two evening classes at a time while working various jobs.  At this rate, I might get an AA degree in another five.  I had been working in Silicon Valley pink color jobs and was looking at a career ceiling unless I had at least a four-year degree that my employers would respect, which at my then present rate, I might earn in another 15 years, if ever?  A friend told me about a little known program called the Regents External Degree from the University of the State of New York (now spun out as Excelsior College).  They offered college credit by examination, specifically, (back then) if one could earn at least a minimum score on a Subject Graduate Record Exam (not the general), they would award about a year’s worth of university credits.  Looking at the minimum score needed, it appeared that you had to be at least within one standard deviation of the norm for that exam, typically at least in the 33%tile or so.  Remember, that meant that one is scored against students that had already earned a degree in that field and who wanted to go onto graduate school in that field… a high standard.  I’m fairly certain that the Regents never thought that someone would attempt it, but I figured that if I could earn decent scores on three subjects of the then available exams, I would have a BS.  It would save me 15 or more years!  With little to lose and much to gain, I jumped on it!

The exams are offered only several times a year and one could only take one at a time.  I decided I would try the Biology exam.  I borrowed every biology text I could lay hand to… studied every waking moment not at work.  I took practice exams to hone my test taking skills and to look for areas of weakness.  When I took the test, one of my friends was also taking it.  I left an hour early from the three-hour time allotted and saw my friend give me a quizzical look.  She told me later that she had thought I was giving up.  No, I had already finished an hour before that and had gone through it a second time, catching some dumb mistakes.  I earned a 99th%tile score, the highest available.

I next chose psychology, having taken a psych course at one of the JC’s.  I brushed up on the basics and took a few practice exams.  I got a 93rd%tile.  It wasn’t the perfect score because I hadn’t cared to study up on all of the silly pseudo-science that was still to be found in the exam: Freud, Jung, etc.  I only had a few weeks between the exam dates, so didn’t have much time to study in any case.

I still needed a third exam and was running out of easy {for me} options.  I would have to take one with heavy math… I was advised by my mentors that if I really wanted to have a decent career, given that this was Silicon Valley, of the exams available my only real choice was physics.  Chemistry might have been easier for me, but not as likely to be as impressive in Silicon Valley.  Ugh!  No easy peasy English Lit exam would do…   Please understand, I’m smart… but NOT good at math.  My highest math class was intro to calculus.  Earlier, I had had to repeat algebra in high school after failing it the first time.  Ugh!  No choice, I dug in.  I bought some physics books along with their problem set workbooks and sat down every waking hour not at work to plough through them.  Ugh!  I got math help from some of my mentors, like Dr. West at work.  I was not confident about doing well enough on the physics exam.  But I figured that if I didn’t get a good enough score, I could always try one of the others, the English Lit exam perhaps, just to get the BS and call it a day.  Well that test was worse than I could imagine.  No ducking out early.  I hadn’t finished.  I had answered all of the non-math problems first, but still… I walked for an hour on the lovely Stanford campus w/ a raging migraine before I could drive home.  I was very worried I hadn’t gotten a high enough score.  But… I did, at 45th%tile.  Not bad for someone who had never stepped foot in a college physics classroom!

Candice_Caltech

The Regents agreed to grant me a degree in psychology… but not biology or physics because they also required upper-division lab courses in those subjects.  Fortunately, after some negotiation, they agreed to grant a waiver for the lab requirement on the physics degree due to my extensive real world experience in high-tech clean room work, documented by Dr. Belt, Vice President of Fairchild Semiconductor.  I had a dual degree in psychology and physics, very strong minor in biology… and with Dr. Belt and Fairchild’s sponsorship, was admitted to Stanford Graduate School in the Materials Science Dept. as an Honors Coop part-time student, paid for by Fairchild.  Why materials science?  That was the department that taught classes and conducted research in semiconductor fabrication/processing.  It also had the highest number of women, w/ near gender parity, unlike the electrical engineering or computer science departments.  There was no hope that I would ever actually finish a degree, as I could only take maybe one class at a time while working full-time as a fab supervisor, which I did, but an Honors Coop has access to far more than just classes… as well as taking classes for credit, I audited several just for the knowledge.  The classes were available for viewing real-time via microwave video link at work.  (And now you know where I ate lunch… not always at “lunch time”.)

So, I went from having a smattering of general ed jr. college credits to a degree and onto graduate school at an elite university in about a year’s time!  With my official status as a graduate student Fairchild promoted me and sent me to in-house management classes.  I was soon supervising a small group of engineers, technicians, student interns, and clean room operators manufacturing microelectronic devices in a small prototyping fab.  {As proof that Silicon Valley was a small world back then, one of the technicians reporting to me was a young women just a few years older than I, who had grown up only two doors away.  We used to play records and practice dancing together growing up.}  Not bad for someone who only a few years before had been intermittently homeless and couch surfing.

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