How I Got a Computer Science Degree in 3 Months for Less Than $5000

This is the story of how I prepared for a decade to graduate in 3 months.

In 2012, I dropped out of college, where I was studying computer science, after just one semester. I already knew how to program and I thought I’d never need a degree.

Over the years, I found myself complaining a lot about it. I saw many opportunities, especially abroad, that were out of reach because I didn’t have the required papers. I felt ready for graduate school but couldn’t get admitted. I had to work harder to prove myself to employers. Although I never noticed any serious gap in my knowledge, I felt that something was missing. I started to resent my decision.

In June 2020, I attended a virtual Slate Star Codex meetup. As usual, I complained about not having a degree. This is when I first heard about Western Governors University (WGU). Apparently, their online programs had no speed limit and students could graduate as quickly as they could pass all the exams. I was skeptical, so I did some research.

Here’s what I found:

It seemed too good to be true. I immediately submitted my application.

The next day, I received a phone call from an enrollment counselor. They confirmed everything I had read and told me that although they didn’t officially accept foreign students (I’m Canadian), they would try to make an exception. After a dozen phone calls, transfer/translation/evaluation of transcripts, proof of English proficiency, and tuition payments, I was officially enrolled in their Bachelor of Science in Computer Science program.

I now had the opportunity to apply everything I had learned from Scott H. Young’s MIT Challenge, in which he completed MIT’s 4-year CS curriculum in just 12 months. Of course, my achievement wouldn’t be as impressive, given WGU’s less rigorous program and my prior experience in the field. Indeed, I wrote my first program at 10, I had years of professional experience as a software developer, and I had even studied the subject in college. Still, I would get a real CS degree in just 3 months.

Academic Journey

In this post, I will take you through my entire academic journey, describing when, where, and how I completed each of the 34 courses (120 credits) required for this degree. Note that credits awarded for the first 3 courses (9 credits), taken between 2009 and 2012, were excluded from the quoted 3 months and $5000 total. “How I Got a Computer Science Degree in 11 Years for More Than $5000” didn’t sound right.

When consulting the tables below, “CUs” stands for “Competency Units”, which is WGU’s time-agnostic equivalent to “Credit Hours”. “Effort” represents the total amount of time (in hours) invested in a given course, from initial research to final assessment.

Cégep Édouard-Montpetit (2009-2012)

From 2009 to 2012, I studied IT at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit and graduated with a Diploma of College Studies, which is roughly equivalent to an Associate’s degree in the US. From there, a Bachelor’s degree typically requires an additional 3 years of study.

My biggest gripe with the program, other than mandatory class attendance, was its focus on Microsoft technologies: Visual Studio, C#, ASP.NET, SQL Server, IIS, etc. I was a die-hard Linux user who wrote essays about the evil of proprietary software in high school. Despite my initial resistance, I ended up learning quite a bit. Who knew I would later fall in love with Windows Phone, build a bunch of apps for it (including its first Bitcoin wallet), work as a Xamarin developer, and even spend 3 years porting WinUI to Android and iOS (Uno).

Out of 39 courses, I only managed to transfer 2 courses' worth of credits (6 credits) to WGU. They wouldn’t transfer any IT course. They wouldn’t take my calculus course because it was over 5 years old. Unlike a US Associate’s degree, which would satisfy all of WGU’s general education requirements, my foreign degree wouldn’t. Also, the subject and level of some of the courses were lost in translation, after going through a translation agency (French → English) and an international credential evaluation service (Québec → USA). If I had a recent (less than 5 years old) Associate’s degree, I could have expected to receive 10 courses' worth of credits.

Start Course CUs Satisfied by
2009 C464: Introduction to Communication 3 English Language and Culture
2009 C100: Introduction to Humanities 3 Québec Literature

Concordia University (2012)

In 2012, I studied computer science at Concordia University and dropped out after 1 semester.

On my first day, I attended 2 lectures. I quickly realized that a 2-hour commute to listen to someone slowly recite a PowerPoint wasn’t the best use of my time. Lectures might exist for good reasons, but I wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate them. Instead, I read the PowerPoints myself, at home, and used Wikipedia to fill in the gaps. I only set foot on campus 3 more times, to take the midterm and final exams. Although I passed all 4 courses, I felt very confused about this whole university thing, where you spend a lot of time learning very little. So, I dropped out and gave up my scholarship.

Out of 4 courses, I only managed to transfer 1 courses' worth of credits (3 credits) to WGU.

Start Course CUs Satisfied by
2012 C255: Introduction to Geography 3 Introduction to Political Science

Study.com (2020)

In July 2020, as I was going through WGU’s admission process, I decided to get a head-start by taking some courses online for academic credits. At that point, I was still hoping to graduate in 12 months (2 terms of 6 months). I figured that the more credits I transferred, the more likely I would complete the program in 2 terms. I still had no idea that 1 term would be more than enough.

Thankfully, US students have access to a lot of affordable options when it comes to taking online courses for credits. These are just a few of the many websites that offer courses with ACE credits in the $25-$200 per course range:

I chose Study.com because they had the largest course catalog (180+) and the most comprehensive transfer agreements with WGU. Their College Acceleration Edition plan costs $199/month and includes 2 exams, on top of which you can add up to 3 additional exams per month for $70 each.

Their courses are not the best I’ve taken, but they get the job done. They’re split into bite-size units, each with animated lectures and mandatory quizzes. The number of quizzes can be overwhelming, and I recommend looking elsewhere if you already know the material and just want to take the final exam. Some courses have projects, and most courses have a proctored final exam. Proctoring is done using your computer’s webcam, but the footage is only reviewed 7-10 days later, which can be a problem if you need to transfer credits quickly.

Unfortunately, they limit students to 5 courses per month, which is where I stopped.

Start Course CUs Satisfied by Effort
7/11 C958: Calculus I 3 Math 104: Calculus 1 62:00
7/11 C175: Data Management - Foundations 3 Computer Science 107: Database Fundamentals 10:05
7/11 C993: Structured Query Language 3 Computer Science 204: Database Programming 8:15
7/11 C170: Data Management - Applications 3 Computer Science 303: Database Programming 6:30
7/26 C963: American Politics and the US Constitution 3 Political Science 102: American Government 16:30

Sophia Learning (2020)

On July 29th, after reaching Study.com’s monthly 5-course limit, I started looking for alternatives. Luckily, Sophia Learning had made all their courses free until the end of July due to COVID-19.

The quality of their courses is better than average, and you can even choose from multiple lecturers. Courses are broken down into logical units, each with a set of challenges (quizzes) and a milestone (unit exam). Each course ends with a final milestone which is non-proctored (no webcam) and open-book, making them almost too easy.

I managed to complete 3 courses before the promotion ended.

Start Course CUs Satisfied by Effort
7/29 C176: Business of IT - Project Management 3 Project Management 3:45
7/30 C165: Integrated Physical Sciences 3 Environmental Science 3:30
7/31 C955: Applied Probability and Statistics 3 Introduction to Statistics 13:45

Western Governors University (2020)

On September 1st, I finally started my first and only term at WGU, with 23 courses (83 credits) left to go.

By then, I had already passed 9 pre-assessments (practice exams), which unlike course material were already available before the start of the term. On my first day, I completed 4 courses in the span of 4 hours. At a traditional school, it would have taken 4 months.

It made me realize a few things:

Each student at WGU gets assigned a program mentor, who supports them from their first day through graduation. I had a phone call with mine every week, in which we discussed my progress and planned the week ahead. She quickly adapted to my pace of study and made sure I never got stuck waiting for an answer or for the next set of courses to be approved. I never expected that this human point of contact would have such a positive impact on my experience at WGU. Course instructors were also available on-demand, sometimes on surprisingly short notice.

The quality and difficulty of courses at WGU varies a lot. They’re sourced from different providers, sometimes using different platforms for material and assessments. Some certification courses, such as Axelos ITIL 4 Foundation and Oracle Database SQL 1Z0-071, probably don’t belong in a CS program. On the other hand, a compilers course and a programming languages course would have been welcome additions.

Given my prior experience in the field, I was able to skip a lot of material. For 1/5 of courses, I simply ignored the material. For another 3/5 of courses, I quickly skimmed through it. For the last 1/5 of courses, I basically read the whole text book. Sometimes, I prefered third-party resources over the provided material. Fortunately, WGU’s student community curates a lot of them (tips, notes, flashcards, quizzes, abridged text books, YouTube playlists, etc.)

Each course assesses a student’s competency in 1 of 2 ways:

While I had some PAs returned for improvements, I made sure to never fail an OA – even if retakes (up to 3-4) were allowed. It wasn’t a race, and my goal wasn’t to brute force my way into a degree. I came for the piece of paper, sure, but I also used it as an opportunity to assess and fill gaps in my knowledge. As a result, I never came close to failing an exam.

During my time at WGU, I focused on a single course at a time and made sure to complete it before starting a new one. I made some progress every single day (except for one weekend and on my birthday), which I believe was key to maintaining momentum. On average, I studied for 40 hours a week and completed a course every 3 days.

On November 3rd, after just over 2 months at WGU, I submitted my capstone project and completed the program.

Start Course CUs Effort
9/1 C182: Introduction to IT 4 1:30
9/1 C172: Network and Security - Foundations 3 2:30
9/1 C779: Web Development Foundations 3 2:00
9/1 C173: Scripting and Programming - Foundations 3 1:45
9/2 C683: Natural Science Lab 2 9:45
9/1 C867: Scripting and Programming - Applications 4 12:15
9/3 C836: Fundamentals of Information Security 3 2:00
9/3 C959: Discrete Mathematics I 4 9:30
9/4 C482: Software I 6 9:30
9/7 C195: Software II - Advanced Java Concepts 6 20:30
9/9 C949: Data Structures and Algorithms I 4 6:30
9/10 C952: Computer Architecture 3 19:45
9/10 C961: Ethics in Technology 3 2:30
9/13 C191: Operating Systems for Programmers 3 15:00
9/16 C455: English Composition I 3 25:15
9/19 C960: Discrete Mathematics 2 4 16:45
9/21 C950: Data Structures and Algorithms II 4 47:45
9/30 C188: Software Engineering 4 8:15
10/2 C846: Business of IT - Applications 4 19:30
10/8 C768: Technical Communication 3 12:00
10/10 C951: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence 3 12:45
10/12 C857: Software Quality Assurance 3 14:15
10/19 C964: Computer Science Capstone 4 128:30

Summary

From July 11th to August 3rd (23 days) and from September 1st to November 3rd (63 days), I completed 31 courses (111 credits) online across Study.com, Sophia Learning, and Western Governors University. Combined with 3 college courses (9 credits) completed between 2009 and 2012 (not accounted for in the 3 months and $5000 total), I received an accredited Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degree from Western Governors University for less than $5000.

Experience

My experience was very positive overall. Compared to my time at traditional brick and mortar schools, it was night and day. The ability to study when, where, and how you want, without arbitrary speed limits, is extremely empowering. I believe that separating training from testing makes a lot of sense and should be more common.

Due to COVID-19, I stayed home the entire time. I wasn’t working either, which meant that I had plenty of undistracted time to study. If I had wanted, I could have done nothing but sleep, eat, and study. However, without a speed limit, I was at risk of burning out. The rapid feedback and progress enabled by these online schools can make learning, or at least taking tests, quite addictive.

Although I didn’t stick to any strict schedule, most days looked the same. I did most of my deep work (practice tests, projects, papers, exams) in my home office, which I usually occupied from 10 AM to 5 PM. I often time-blocked study sessions, during which I forced myself not to do anything else. When I finished a course, I usually called it a day. Otherwise, about 6 hours study was all I could take. Then, I usually exercised, showered, cooked, and ate dinner. I rarely studied in the evening, but I occassionally watched lectures. On average, I slept 7 and a half hours a night, which is an hour less than usual. I never came close to burning out.

While everything went smoothly, I wouldn’t say it was easy. After all, I invested over 600 hours in this project. But I recognize that it would have been a lot more challenging if I hadn’t been exposed to pretty much the entire curriculum before. Years of programming, watching MIT lectures, reading research papers, refreshing Hacker News, and going down Wikipedia rabbit holes all added up to something. I did learn new things, and it definitely reinforced some existing knowledge, but I wouldn’t say it was transformative. The bulk of the effort was memorizing things that I normally would have Googled. In fact, I might have learned more about learning than about computer science, but the experience was worth it.

Overall, I never felt rushed, overwhelmed, or stressed. My motivation remained stable the entire time, which I attribute to clear goals and a challenging pace. It gave me confidence and helped me appreciate the power of focus. I’m not sure I could have emulated this experience anywhere else, and I’m very grateful that institutions like WGU exist.

Numbers

As a quantified self enthusiast, I tracked a lot of data while completing this degree, including all invested time and money.

Time

I tracked every minute spent on each course/activity related to this degree.

Effort per day
Effort per course

Money

I tracked every dollar spent on each expense related to this degree.

Description Cost (USD)
WGU application fee $0.00
Cégep Édouard-Montpetit transcripts $0.00
Concordia University transcripts $10.00
RushTranslate transcripts translation $74.85
Ucredo transcripts evaluation $240.00
TOEFL iBT Home Edition $245.00
Study.com courses (5) $410.00
Sophia Learning courses (3) $0.00
Parchment credit transfer $3.10
WGU tuition + fees $3,520.00
Western Union + TransferWise fees $30.00
Total $4,532.95

Final thoughts

If you’re thinking about getting a Bachelor’s degree in CS, already have experience in the field, and live in the US/Canada, you should seriously consider Western Governors University’s Bachelor of Science in Computer Science program.

Please, however, keep the following compromises in mind when making your decision:

If necessary, many of these shortcomings can be offset by using the 3+ years you’ve saved to do an Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) at Georgia Tech (<$10,000).

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out at miguelrochefort@gmail.com.

You can also discuss this post on Hacker News.

Chinese version (CSDN): https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/nfE-YmKbUwY3rsi4HV-P4Q

Thanks to Barry Cotter for reading drafts of this post.