As a high-school student in the early 1980s, Marianne Durling trained at Phoenix College to be an emergency medical technician. She finished high school, started working full time on an ambulance, and kept taking college courses. But planning them around 24-hour shifts got hectic, and with about 35 credits completed, she left college.
Her husband's Army service sent them overseas, then back to Arizona, where Ms. Durling, by that point a mother, went to work for an insurance company. She took several clinical-nursing exams through what was then Regents College, but then she had a second child, who was premature.
Later she started a medical-billing company, and when the family moved to North Carolina, she began teaching medical coding at Vance-Granville Community College. A new president there wanted her to have a degree, and in 2009 she turned to Excelsior College, formerly Regents, which caters to adult learners, awarding academic credit for proficiency tests.
With 18 credits to go for an associate degree in the liberal arts, Ms. Durling finished in one month. She kept going. Swapping study strategies on an online forum, she took about 20 tests—through Excelsior, the College Board, and the Defense Department—to complete the bulk of two bachelor's degrees, in liberal studies and health sciences.
Now Ms. Durling, 48, just finished a master's in health-care administration, online, at Bellevue University. "Four degrees in three years," she says. "Not too bad." She now works as a curriculum coordinator for health-care-management-technology and medical-coding courses at Piedmont Community College, in Roxboro, N.C.
Her academic progress has changed her now-teenage children's thinking about college, she says. "They realize that there are other options."
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