If you want college credits but can’t afford tuition bills, CLEP exams may be a great money-saving solution.

The College-Level Examination Program lets you earn college credit based on knowledge you already have. There are 34 different CLEP exams. The most popular is the Spanish language exam, according to Ariel Foster, executive director of the CLEP program, who said more than 26,000 people took the Spanish exam last year.

Other popular examinations include: English composition, college algebra, introductory sociology, and analyzing and interpreting literature. Overall, more than 200,000 CLEP examinations were administered last year; a third of these were administered to active-duty military, who can take the exams at no cost.

The CLEP program is operated by the College Board, which also handles the SAT and the Advanced Placement (AP) programs. CLEP tests are offered in subjects most commonly taught in the first two years of an undergraduate degree program. More than 2,900 colleges grant credit for one or more CLEP examinations, making it the most widely recognized college credit by examination program.

With a satisfactory score on a CLEP test, you can earn from three to 12 college credits. Pass enough CLEP tests, and it’s possible to “test out” of some—if not all—of your first year or two of college.

What CLEP Costs You
Compared to paying for a year or two of college tuition, CLEP tests are a downright steal.

“The $70 CLEP examination fee and $15 to 20 administration fee paid to the college, for a total outlay of just under $100 per test, is substantially less cost than tuition at most colleges in the United States,” says Foster.

The potential for huge savings on college fees was a big incentive for Cindy Lail of Lawrenceville, Ga., who made CLEP testing a family affair.

“Both my daughter and I have experience with CLEP,” says Lail. “I went back to college in my late 40s and wanted to finish up the degree I'd started 20 years earlier as quickly as I could.  So I searched for CLEPs that would take care of some of the ‘grunt work’ classes.  I studied about two weeks and passed the U.S. history test easily.  Then another two weeks and I took psychology. I didn’t study at all for the English test. Getting credit for three classes for about $75 each? That really beats tuition.”

The demand for these tests is expected to rise. "We believe testing volumes will increase as higher education enrollments increase, due to the economic climate,” says Foster. “More individuals will seek innovative ways to reduce their out of pocket expense (and/or loan burden). CLEP is one way to potentially reduce costs and to save time."

How to Get Started
If you are contemplating using CLEP exams to test out of a college course, you must first discuss this with the college you plan to attend. Policies vary widely as far as which CLEP exams a college will accept and what minimum score they consider satisfactory. “‘Talk with your academic adviser or admissions officer,” says Foster. Next, find the nearest local test center.

“Taking a CLEP examination is similar to taking a final examination in the comparable college-level course,” Foster says. "A review of a textbook used for the course and consulting the CLEP Study Guide/eGuides on our website is essential preparation."

When you arrive at the test center on exam day, you will take the test on a computer and will receive your score immediately upon completing the test (except in the case of the English composition exam).

Potential Downsides
While CLEP tests can offer many benefits, there are a few possible drawbacks. Your college may limit the number or type of CLEP exams they will give credit for. Also, by testing out of classes, you obviously miss out on both the social aspect of those courses and the classroom-imparted wisdom you would get from a professor or instructor.

Visit the College Board's Web site for more information about CLEP exams, costs and test centers.