The independent, trusted guide to online education for over 24 years!

6 Ways to Get College Credit for Work & Life Experience

working architect earns degree with life experience credit

Online life experience degree programs are available at most accredited colleges today. Using them can help you earn your distance degree quickly—and at considerable savings.

Why have most online universities developed life experience college credit assessment programs? Today, the majority of part-time college students are 27 years old and older. In online bachelor degree programs, the average student is an adult, about 36 years old. The average online masters degree student is 40 years old.

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

Valid college credit for work experience can make an online degree much more affordable. This article examines six ways to turn life and work experience into valid online college course credit.

Quick Facts About College Credit for Experience

Pros & Cons of College Credit for Life Experience

If you get credit for things you have already accomplished, you can skip certain courses and get to your degree faster. You can also save money, as proving your prior experience is cheaper than taking the whole course.

6 Ways to Get College Credit for Work Experience

There are six basic ways to get credit towards a college degree for prior work, educational, or life experiences:

  1. Take an exam to prove competency in a subject
  2. Gather a portfolio to document your work
  3. Corporate training or other seminars
  4. Professional licenses and credentials
  5. Military training and experience
  6. Competency-Based Education

Using Credits Towards Your Degree

Each program has different limits on how many credits they allow to be transferred or credited towards a degree. Some allow as few as 12 credits, while certain schools have programs for degree completion that will allow you to apply transfer credits of different types for almost all of your courses. Each program and each method of prior learning assessment has different steps.

Check the Costs & Find Your Degree Program

It is typically less expensive to take exams, which start around $85, than to take a whole college course. Likewise, for portfolio evaluation, corporate or military credits, or when you complete your degree more quickly through competency-based education.

Pro-Tip: Be wary of programs that charge huge fees for “life experience” credits—these could be degree mills. Reputable degree programs will have accreditation and should charge much less for transferred or awarded experience credits than the cost of courses you take. There is no one-size-fits-all program, so compare your options to find schools most likely to accept your prior learning as credit toward your degree. Add up the total of the costs you would pay for transfer credits and courses to get your degree—you could save yourself a lot of time and money!

Pros & Cons of College Credit for Life Experience

The first notable benefit of receiving college credits for prior work, life or educational experiences is saving money on the way to getting a degree. In most cases, students will pay something to have experience assessed or to take exams to get these credits, but it remains cheaper than taking a traditional route.

Applying work and life experience credits to a college degree can save time!  While an adult student in traditional courses might sit through information they already know, they could spend that time more fruitfully learning something new, or accelerating their degree with experience credit, getting their credential quicker and advancing career and earnings.

Another benefit is the chance to assess proficiencies. Categorizing skills, qualities and knowledge can be a disorganized process to anyone balancing a career with a full-time life.  Applying previous life and work experience to a college education can consolidate knowledge and skills to better understand goals and talents.

On the other hand, it may be better for you to take the class if you feel your knowledge in that area is borderline—you could pass a test or prove experience to get out of the class, but it could be more beneficial to take the class and confirm the information you never formally learned through work or life experience.

This is an individual decision that you may want to speak with a college counselor about, as you could benefit from taking some of the courses that you might skip over. However, if you’re highly proficient at what you do and are not seeking to go over things you already know, then life experience credit could be a perfect fit.  The important thing is not just coming out of this with a degree, but with the knowledge and skills that you need to capitalize on that degree in your career.

6 Ways to Get College Credit For Work Experience

1. Challenge/Proficiency Exams

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 34 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 $89—a fraction of the cost of tuition for a single college course. For military students, spouses, and some civilian employees of the military, the CLEP tests are free.

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!

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-seven subject-specific exams cover business, social science, humanities, math, the physical sciences and technology. Cost: $85 per exam plus administrative fees at the testing site. For military members, the cost is covered for the first time an exam is taken; to retake the exam, you will be responsible for the fees.

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 online undergraduate degrees with Excelsior, but other colleges also accept these tests. Choose from nearly 60 exams in the arts and sciences, business, nursing and education.

The cost is $110 for Excelsior College Examinations (ECEs), with nursing exams ringing in around $355 to $380. For the basic exams, they offer a Value Package for $145 that includes a practice exam and the option to retake the exam free if your first attempt is unsuccessful.

High School Courses with Exams for College Credit

Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses and the tests that go along with them are another way to get college credit through an exam. When AP or IB programs are offered in a high school, high school students are able to take courses that are at the early college level, and usually transferrable for college credit. If you have taken these courses and passed your exams, you can apply for advanced standing in college courses, or often, get credits that count towards your degree.

2. The Academic Portfolio Option

Some people express themselves better in written form, via papers and essays, than on multiple-choice tests. Consider earning credits for experience by putting together an academic portfolio.

You might be a good candidate for college credit for work experience through the academic portfolio process if:

  • Challenge exams are not offered in your area(s) of expertise
  • You are skilled in 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. Your work experience, volunteer experience, and life experience can be organized and presented so you get the credit you deserve.

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.

This course allows you to submit your previous experience; transfer credits from other schools, military experience, professional certifications or create a life learning portfolio demonstrating your experience—all for credit.

Some schools will allow you to submit a portfolio that you have created yourself, often with guidelines on what they will want to see. There will be a fee for the evaluation of your portfolio, but it will likely be much lower than actually taking a portfolio course.

3 . Corporate Training Programs

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 allows non-college educators 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.

4. Professional Licenses and Credentials

The American Council on Education (ACE) has also reviewed professional certifications offered by non-collegiate agencies and makes recommendations on when to award college credit for work experience.

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.

Verify if your license or professional credential could earn you work experience college credit in the National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training.

5. Military Training Programs

If you’ve been in the military in the last decade, you most likely 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.

6. Competency-Based Education

Competency-Based Education is an alternative way to leverage work or life experience for college credit. If you are pursuing your degree as an adult, after you have had some experience working, in the military or in a traditional career, your individual knowledge may have some gaps. You might not be able to pass an exam in a subject, yet you know half of the material that would be covered in the course.

Enter the option of personalized learning, also called competency-based education, which can allow you to accelerate your courses by testing out of different sections or units of the course you already know, while also filling in the gaps in your knowledge. Different colleges may offer unique formats to access this type of personalized education. This shortens your path to a degree and saves money while you do it.

Two schools that offer accelerated programs are Western Governors University and Capella University.  The programs are best suited for students with at least one year of college experience.

WGU offers a method of learning that allows students to fast forward through work where they are already proficient.

Similarly, Capella University offers Flexpath that allows students to quickly get through classes where they have experience.

Credit By Examination vs. Competency-Based Education

You will notice the acronym CBE can also refer to Credit by Examination, such as CLEP and DSST. Both are ways to get college credits faster, but Credit by Examination lets you jump over the need to take courses at all if you can pass the exam.

Credit by Examination will let you accelerate your education by testing out of sections or going faster through parts of your courses when you already know the information.

Competency-Based Education programs are a great option for those who have taken courses a long time ago, or who have gained much of their knowledge through work, but may have missed or forgotten some information that they need for their degree.

Using Life Experience Credits Towards Your Degree

The process for getting credits accepted by the school that you want to attend can vary by college, and also varies by the method of applying for credits that you wish to pursue. Your first step is to round up all possible life and work experiences that you might be able to get credit for. You will need this for the program or programs you are interested in to complete a Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), which could incorporate more than one method of awarding college credits.

Next, you will want to find college programs that suit your educational goals. Some programs will allow you to transfer only 12 credits towards your bachelor’s degree, while others will let you transfer up to 90 credits or more. Some schools accept exam credits, but not portfolio credits. Each program can be different.

Once you have some possible schools to consider, research what type and quantity of credits they will allow to compare your options. You can contact the admissions departments to ask specific questions about whether your experience will transfer to credits in a program, and what you need to do to prove your competency.

Final Points to Consider

1. 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 (up to 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 bachelor’s degree must be taken directly from a degree-granting college.

2. Special Distance Learning Assessment Colleges

If you have a lot of experience to transfer, making it possible that you could get your degree quickly, you may want to consider a program that is geared to degree completion students. Two regionally accredited distance-learning colleges in the United States—Thomas Edison State University and Excelsior University 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.

3. Life Experience Credits for Graduate Degrees

Most credit-for-career experience programs apply only to undergraduate degrees—associate degrees or bachelor’s 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.

But there are some notable exceptions, especially as prior learning is increasingly recognized as valuable. Sometimes there are accelerated degree programs that cater to people with specific experience in their careers, such as Executive MBA programs that can be completed in a year or less, but only admit students who have a number of years of experience working in business administration.

4. Caution: Check Fees

Credit for 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 $89 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.

Uncover New Career Options with a Life Experience Degree

There are many terrific degree programs out there for you to complete an associate, bachelor’s, or possibly even graduate degree. It makes sense to cash in on the credit for your knowledge and experience so you can get your degree and move on to the next step in your career quickly and affordably. Compare your options and get started today!