Air National Guard 1st Lt. Logan Lathrop wasn’t exactly a star student growing up. In his own words, he “barely graduated high school.” But an educational tool he stumbled upon while serving overseas spurred an unlikely journey to Harvard Law School.
He believes other service members could use what he calls the “best-kept secret” to fast-track their education, even while deployed.
When Lathrop graduated high school, he joined the Air National Guard to avoid student debt and enrolled in community college. But when the information technology specialist for the 152nd Airlift Wing deployed to Kuwait, he was anxious about falling behind his peers.
He’d heard about the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), which features 90- to 120-minute exams that allow students to test out of introductory courses. The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) program offers the tests free of cost to service members and eligible dependents.
Currently, more than 2,000 traditional colleges and universities offer credit to students who pass CLEP tests, according to the College Board. And nearly 50,000 military service members, plus eligible spouses and civil service employees, take the exams each year.
But passing a CLEP exam can be difficult. According to 2022 data, the passing rate for DANTES-funded exams is just 41% for chemistry. In 2017, 74% of civilians’ CLEP exams earned passing scores, significantly more than the 54% of passing scores from the DANTES program.
Lathrop knew he’d need help to pass the CLEP exams. While browsing the internet, he came across information about Modern States. The organization offers an online learning platform with free lectures, quizzes, tests and e-textbooks to help students pass a CLEP exam.
During his downtime inside the dark tent on his deployment, he logged onto Modern States and completed several courses. He ultimately finished a semester-and-a-half of credits in three months.
“I was passing the first time, every time,” Lathrop said. “Every time, I felt like the classes were actually interesting. One of the hardest parts about deployment was it felt like you were kind of leaving everything behind for six months. Doing this, it felt like even though I was deployed, my life didn’t come to a complete standstill. I was still progressing in school and furthering my life outside the military.”
Lathrop also said Modern States’ free coursework allowed the flexibility that studying in a combat zone requires.
“Sometimes internet connectivity is up in the air, a toss-up,” he said. “You’ll have a week or two where you have almost no free time, and then some weeks where you have a little bit more free time. But that’s what kind of helped a lot with Modern States. I was able to self-pace.”
Once Lathrop returned from deployment, he used the 21 college credits he received through CLEP exams to transfer to the University of Nevada, Reno. He passed the LSAT and was accepted into Harvard Law School.
Lathrop’s success with Modern States isn’t unique. The site has more than 400,000 users, and the group has sponsored more than 150,000 CLEP exam fees. According to Modern States, the passing rate for its students is 75%.
Steve Klinsky, founder of Modern States, said the problem with CLEP has been how students learn the material to pass the exam.
“There never was a good way to do that, and now we have a free way to do that,” Klinsky said. “It can be a life-changing event for people trying to get a two-year or four-year degree.”
Klinsky, a philanthropist and CEO of New Mountain Capital — a $37 billion private equity firm – is the primary funder for Modern States. His vision is to make college education as accessible as checking out a book at a public library.
“It’s a really good confidence booster for some people just to see they can pass these courses,” Klinsky said. “And, if you don’t like it, there’s no cost. It’s painless to experiment, and you may be surprised at how well you do.”
Lathrop said he is now dreaming of a career in cyber law. While he initially joined the military for the education benefits, he believes it might have been the missing piece in his academic success.
“It honestly changed me in a ton of ways,” Lathrop said. “I think maturity was the biggest part of it. Joining the Air National Guard was the best decision of my life.”