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5 Ways to Earn College Credit for Career and Life Experience

Online College Financial Aid  >  Cutting Online Degrees Cost
By Vicky Phillips, Chief Education Analyst   
 
Life experience degree programs are available at most accredited online colleges today. Using them can help you earn your distance degree more quickly—and at considerable cost savings.

Why have most online universities developed life experience college credit assessment programs? Today, the majority of "college kids" are 24 years old or older. In online bachelors degree programs, the average “college kid” is an adult student, about 36 years old. The average online masters degree student is 40 years old.

If you’re an adult “college kid," chances are excellent that you’ve acquired specialized college level knowledge on the job for your career—or through independent reading or hobbies. Your life experience and work experience—corporate training, professional licenses, etc.—can be converted into real college degree credits.

Valid credit for life experience degree programs can make an online degree much more affordable. Here are five ways to turn what you've learned in life and work experience into valid online college course credit.




Challenge exams have been developed to test what older students already know about college-level subjects ranging from accounting to foreign languages to nursing. For a modest fee, anyone can take these exams at local testing sites. Most exams are multiple choice, feature an average of one hundred questions, and can be completed in an hour or less.


College Level Exam Program (CLEP)

CLEP, the College Level Exam Program, is the most widely accepted "life experience" challenge exam program. More than 2,900 accredited colleges, both residential schools and online schools, accept CLEP test results for undergraduate degree credit. The CLEP program features 33 single-subject college exams and five general exams.


Single-subject exams cover material that is covered in a single college course. For example, the College Algebra CLEP covers the material commonly taught during an introductory course in college algebra.

The cost for each CLEP is $80—a fraction of the cost of tuition for a single college course.

The five general CLEP exams cover freshman-level knowledge in English composition, humanities, college mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences. If all five general exams are passed, up to 30 college credits may be awarded—the equivalent of an entire year of college.

For more information about CLEP exams, contact: The College Board, 800-257-9558.


DSST Standardized Subject Tests

DSST originally began as DANTES (Defense Activity for Non-traditional Educational Support). Now DSST, which stands for DANTES Subject Standardized Tests, offers tests available to the public. Thirty-eight subject-specific exams cover business, social science, humanities, math and the physical sciences. Cost: $80 per exam.

Contact: DSST Program Office, 877-471-9860.


Excelsior College Credit By Exam


Excelsior is New York State’s adult education and distance learning college. Most who register for these credit-by-exam offerings are also working toward a distance undergraduate degree with Excelsior, but other colleges also accept these tests. Choose from nearly 50 exams in the arts and sciences, business, nursing and education.

The cost is $95 for Excelsior College Examinations (ECEs), with nursing exams ringing in around $305 to $330. The school also offers eight UExcel Exams (in partnership with Pearson VUE), which are three- to six-credit by exams for lower-level subjects. 

Contact: Excelsior College, 888-647-2388.




Some people express themselves better in written form, via papers and essays, than they do on multiple-choice tests. If this sounds like you, consider earning credits for experience by putting together a written academic portfolio.

You might be a good candidate for life experience or work experience college credits through the academic portfolio process if:
  • Challenge exams are not offered in your area(s) of expertise
  • You enjoy writing papers and reports
  • What you know represents applied knowledge, rather than textbook theory
  • You have products—such as artwork, certificates, business plans, articles, software, videos or written reports—which attest to your competency in selected subject areas.
Colleges that accept portfolios for review often require learners to enroll in a course to learn how to put together an academic portfolio.

Learners in the distance learning program at Ohio University, for example, must complete the Life and Career Experiences Analysis course to learn how to compile a portfolio. The homework for this course involves working with an advisor to identify and document college-level knowledge for degree credit.



Corporations spend more time, money and effort teaching adults than do all the colleges in America combined. Many large corporations operate their own “corporate universities,” which specialize in teaching employees everything from technical management to C++ programming.

Non-collegiate training programs can often be converted to life experience credit through a portfolio process. But many large corporations, such as AT&T, have subjected their training courses to a special review process sponsored by the American Council on Education's Program on Non-Collegiate Sponsored Instruction (ACE/PONSI), known today as the CREDIT program.

CREDIT is a program that allows non-college educators, such as AT&T, to have their in-house training courses reviewed by college assessors. These assessors review course content, textbooks and classroom procedures. If they find that individual courses are "college level," they recommend that a certain number of college credits be routinely awarded for successful course completion.

About half of all regionally accredited colleges accept ACE recommendations for degree credit. The other half may not accept them, or may severely restrict the number and kinds of ACE credits they will accept in transfer.

Check for training courses offered by your employer that may be pre-approved for college credit at ACE’s free National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training.



The American Council on Education (ACE) has also reviewed professional certifications offered by non-collegiate agencies and made credit award recommendations for work experience in its free National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training.

A few of these credentials are highlighted below:
  • Certified Public Accountant
  • Certified Computer Programmer
  • Certified Novell Engineer
  • Certified Professional Secretary
  • Certified Purchasing Manager
  • Chartered Financial Consultant
  • FAA Pilot, Engineer, Mechanic Licenses
  • Respiratory Therapy Technician
In addition to ACE-approved professional designations, online colleges often accept nationally recognized or state licenses. Aviation licenses, real estate licenses and professional health certifications, such as nursing diploma training, are all commonly accepted for college degree credits.



If you've been in the military in the last decade, you probably have ACE (American Council on Education) military credits that can be applied toward a college degree. Did you know that boot camp or basic training alone is worth several free elective college credits in first aid, personal hygiene, physical education and marksmanship?

ACE publishes a whopping four-volume set on how military training and occupational specialties translate into university degree credits through the ACE process. The Guide to the Evaluation of Educational Experiences in the Armed Services can be accessed free online.

The guide contains ACE college credit recommendations for all formal courses and occupational specialties offered by the services.




Limits on Credit for Life,  Work and Career Experience

Most regionally accredited online colleges limit the number of challenge exam credits they will accept to 30 credits (one year of college). The same is true for portfolio or ACE credits. In addition, typically the last 30 semester credits (senior year) of any regionally accredited bachelors degree must be taken directly from your degree-granting college.

Special Distance Learning Assessment Colleges

Two regionally accredited distance-learning colleges in the United States—Thomas Edison State College of New Jersey and Excelsior College of New York—operate primarily as assessment colleges. These two special colleges allow students to earn entire undergraduate degrees through credit for life and work experience options.

However, most learners who attend these two colleges also complete some formal college courses to earn their degrees.

Life Experience Credits and Graduate Degrees

Most credit-for-career experience programs apply only to undergraduate degrees—associate degrees or bachelors degrees. It is rare for an accredited online graduate degree program to award credit for experience.

If you encounter an online graduate school that advertises master's or doctorate degrees based solely on life experience, check accreditation carefully. You are almost certainly dealing with an online degree mill. Degree mills are fake colleges that “mill” or crank out worthless paper degrees to thousands of unsuspecting students each year.

Caution: Check Fees

Experience programs typically cost less than regular courses that charge you tuition. On the other hand, "credit for experience" programs are rarely free. Every exam carries an exam fee. For example, CLEPs cost $70 each and local test centers may charge an additional fee for each CLEP exam they proctor.

Colleges themselves typically charge “assessment fees” per course or per credit to transcript exams and evaluate portfolio credits.

Compare college fee and cost structures carefully before enrolling. A few online colleges charge as much per credit to use assessment services as they charge in regular course tuition.

Because prices and procedures vary among online universities, a year of degree credit earned through alternative life experience documentation could cost you $600 or upwards of $6,000.



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