The academic performance of college students is primarily assessed by examinations. Most college courses have an important final examination. Admission to college itself depends in large part on results on tests like the SAT or ACT or on high school grades that were largely determined through examination. Testing is critical to post-graduate employment in professions like law, medicine, and dentistry, and in fields such as accounting.

Moreover, students can earn the equivalent of a high school diploma by passing the GED test originally developed by the American Council of Education (ACE), the leading trade association of American universities. They can earn a good part of the credits needed for a college degree by passing CLEP (College Level Examination Program) tests administered by the College Board, whose results are accepted for credit (if test performance is good) at some 2,900 American universities. And even more popular now are the Advanced Placement (AP) examinations that come at the end of advanced placement classes in a large variety of topics taught at most American high schools. College degrees, in short, are largely based on examination performance. Many industrious students graduate from college in less than three years because of extensive examination-evaluated college level work taken in high school.

Why, then, don’t we go all the way and offer a full-blown bachelor’s degree based on examination results? Call it the NCEE examination –National College Equivalence Examination. Some would vehemently object, arguing that such an exam might make sense at lower education levels like high school, where students largely take a common general education curriculum developing language, history, mathematics, and elementary science knowledge, whereas college involves specializations that vary widely between students.

While there is some truth to that, its importance is often exaggerated. A majority of college students take only about one-third to two-fifths of their course work in their major subject, with the majority in general education courses and electives. To be sure, there are important exceptions, such as many engineering majors. But there is an expectation among employers that college graduates should be fluent in the English language, at least moderately conversant with our national heritage and institutions, and capable of performing moderately sophisticated mathematical exercises. In short, they should be relatively “highly literate.” Additionally, they should be good critical thinkers, able to take a problem and solve it in a rational, efficient fashion.

I think it is possible to examine these core university level general competencies in a longish (three hour) examination, where the test results likely would correlate very highly with the performance of those studying at colleges through traditional means. The first half of the exam might be a 75-90 question multiple choice test in core fields like literature, history, mathematics, science, perhaps economics, maybe with a few questions in philosophy. The second half of the test would be a writing-based examination assessing critical reasoning competency, perhaps using the existing Critical Learning Assessment. It would possible to add an hour to the testing to examine competency in a student’s major subject as well if that were desired.

I would envision the test could be taken at any age or level of formal education, and that some trusted group (e.g., College Board, ACT, American Council of Education) would administer it. Perhaps governments could pay the testing fee (which should not exceed $200) for the lowest income applicants.

The test could serve all sorts of other useful purposes. Students graduating from conventional colleges could take it and use good test results to bolster employment prospects. If all graduating seniors took it, the average test score would be a great indicator of learning by college of attendance, and could be even used in assessing institutional accreditation (maybe even substituting for existing accreditation procedures).

If it is such a cool idea, why isn’t it being done? Mainly, I suspect, because the traditional universities would oppose it voraciously. It is competition, and groups like ACE and the College Board are controlled or highly dependent indirectly on the colleges for their revenues. And certainly, the test is not perfect: it is no substitute for the traditional classroom in many subjects, some of which have laboratory or recital type experiences useful in formulating skills. But for those wanting low cost paths to certifying competencies, this is an option worthy of at least serious discussion.