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9 Online Colleges Offering Credit for Work Experience Using Your Professional & Life Skills to Graduate Faster

The cost per credit hour at American colleges and universities averaged $594 in 2018, and that number isn’t expected to go down anytime soon. Higher education can be expensive, but students with existing work and life experience may be able to shave off some of those costs by translating their knowledge into nontraditional credits. The following guide takes a look at some of the online and brick-and-mortar colleges offering credit for work/life experience, describes some of the common ways to gain these credits and answers some of the most frequently asked questions.

Meet the Experts

Susan Landry College Credit Expert

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What is Work/Life Credit?

For many students, especially those who have been out of high school a few years before considering college, lots of learning happens outside the classroom. Whether serving as a member of the military or gaining hands-on knowledge in the professional world, students who qualify for work/life credit have often picked up additional knowledge or skills along the way which can count toward required college credits.

Pros of Earning Work/Life Credit

  • Hands-on experience.

    Rather than focusing on the theories or methodologies behind an idea, earning credit for things you learned while in a professional or military setting allows students to build practical knowledge and then earn credit for that knowledge.

  • Studying at your own pace.

    This is especially appealing for those who are still working or busy with family obligations who want to continue learning but may not have time to take a full course load or visit campus multiple times per week. Nontraditional credit by exam programs allow you to learn the material at times that suit you best.

  • Skipping prerequisite courses.

    The first two years of a bachelor’s degree is largely spent taking general education courses. Students who can bypass these foundational topics can save both time and money.

  • Saving money.

    Even classes at community colleges can quickly add up for the student who doesn’t qualify for scholarships and doesn’t want to take on student loans. Most credits by exam and credits by prior learning assessment (PLA) portfolios cost far less than a college class.

Potential Cons to Consider

  • Missing out on theoretical knowledge.

    While it may be nice to skip out on the theories behind concepts, the reality is that sometimes this knowledge is needed.

  • Not getting as much classroom experience.

    Depending on the number of credits that students are able to bypass, they may feel like they aren’t getting the full college experience. Students who want to build a community in school may regret not getting to take as many classes as their peers.

  • Getting nontraditional credits can take a while.

    Especially in the case of prior learning assessments, meeting with advisors, taking a workshop and putting together the portfolio can take several months. Students who are ready to begin the process may feel their time is better spent in the classroom.

Where Students Can Get Work/Life Credit

Thousands of schools with brick-and-mortar and online presences now allow students to gain work/life experience credit, and some of them make it really easy to do so. The following list takes a look at some of the best schools in both categories and how they go about awarding nontraditional credit.

Which Online Colleges Award Credit?

Berklee College of Music Online

  • As a music school, BCM recognizes that much of the learning undertaken by artists happens outside the classroom. Because of this, the school allows students to earn up to 30 credits towards their bachelor’s degree by applying prior learning credit. Disciplines available include music production, music business, songwriting, guitar, electronic music production, music composition and interdisciplinary music studies. Students should compare their experience against required courses and then work with an academic advisor to create a portfolio.

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  • CMU’s Global Campus offers a generous program for prior learning, allowing students to apply up to 60 undergraduate and 10 graduate credits gained through alternative learning paths. CMU started this program in the 1970’s when it began accepting military credit for learning. Since then, the school has expanded the program to include workforce experiences, training (e.g. workshops, seminars or professional development), and life experiences (e.g. volunteer activities). In addition to challenge exams, students can also submit CLEP credits and PLA portfolios for consideration.

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  • CSU’s online arm of learning is committed to helping students finish their degrees in smart ways that take advantage of their existing knowledge. Credit by exam options include CSU-Global’s Competency-Based Exams (CBEs), Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, CLEP, DSST, StraighterLine and Modern States. Military nontraditional credit gained via training and occupational experience can also be evaluated, as can additional non-collegiate credits gained through venues such as workforce training. These are assessed via PLA portfolios.

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  • EKU allows online students to earn credit for prior learning, training or work experiences that adequately prepared them to bypass certain coursework. Students must be fully enrolled and have already completed 12 credits at EKU before being considered. Students can use CLEP exams or previous military service to qualify.

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  • Linfield’s department of online and continuing education oversees the process of awarding college credit for life experience and helps students earn hours for things like job training, workshops, travel, family, volunteerism and personal interests. Credits can be earned via examination through CLEP or by challenging a course final. Students previously in the military or who participated in workforce training can also have credits approved by the American Council on Education transferred. Lastly, Linfield also offers portfolio evaluations for students with knowledge that doesn’t fit in either of the two previous categories.

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  • SNHU has a generous external credit policy designed to help students who have participated in nontraditional learning activities gain credits. The school currently accepts passing examinations from students who have CLEP, DSST, AP, International Baccalaureate Diploma or A-Level credits. Students may also gain up to 15 credits via a prior learning assessment portfolio.

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  • Recognizing that lots of learning takes place outside the lecture hall, UM allows students to earn prior learning credit through numerous paths. Credit by exam is allowed for students who have taken CLEP, DSST, Departmental, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams. Students can also ask for a credit by portfolio assessment for licenses or certificates gained through work or for military training and experience.

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  • Arizona’s University of Phoenix allows students to take advantage of extra credit opportunities from a variety of real-world learning experiences. In addition to encouraging students to submit their industry certifications and records of military experience, the school also excepts PLA portfolios, CLEP exams, DSST credits by examination, UExcel and AP exams.

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  • Walden College works with students at every stage to make earning a college degree easy and affordable. Learners may be able to use prior learning assessment portfolios, professional certifications or workforce training as credits.

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Which Traditional Colleges Award Credit?

Colorado Christian University

  • The College of Adult and Graduate Studies at CCU oversees the awarding of life/experience credits. Students pursuing associate degrees can earn up to 45 credits, while those in a four-year program can earn up to 75 credits. CLEP and DSST credits by examination are permitted, as are prior learning assessment portfolios. Students with previous certifications or licenses may also receive credits, provided they are approved by the American Council on Education.

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  • As a school that caters primarily to adult and working students, Midway University is well aware of the benefits of finishing degrees quickly. To help students achieve that goal, the school allows students to gain credits via military experience, examination, prior learning assessment portfolios and licenses/certifications/trainings approved by the American Council of Education.

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  • The University of Maryland University College encourages students to use existing knowledge to cut years off the time needed to complete a degree. UMUC allows students to gain prior learning credits through two different avenues. Course challenges allow students to gain credits if they can pass the final exam of a class, while the portfolio allows students to document their previous experiences.

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  • Wilmington offers students a number of options when it comes to translating what they already know into college credits. Administrators at the school work with degree seekers to review their resume, transcripts, industry credentials and certifications/licenses to see which ones may be eligible for credit. WU works with a range of alternative providers (such as CLEP, DSST and UExcel) for credit by exam and also allows students to compile a portfolio for assessment.

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Ways to Get Non-Traditional College Credit

There are a variety of ways students can earn credits for college depending on their life and work experiences. Though not all schools accept all the methods identified below – and some may offer different amounts of credit – students should check with their school to see what is possible.

School-Administered Challenge Exams

What it is

Offered by individual colleges and universities, school-administered challenge exams allow students to sit for the final exam of a course if they have previously gained knowledge about the topic. If the student passes the exam, they gain the credits available without having to take the entire course. Some schools offer a set list of challenges classes each year, while others allow students to select the classes they would like to challenge.

Student requirements

Requirements vary by individual school, but typically require students to register for the exam, provide information on where they’ve attained the knowledge and obtain permission to sit for the test from the departmental chair.

  • Cost

    Cost is dependent on the school, so students should check with an administrator. In the case of the University of Utah, students pay $50 for the examination.

  • Where to learn more

    No overarching body oversees this process, but students can check out Murray State University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha to get a sense of how schools offer challenge exams.

What it is

The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) allows students to take a series of exams based on prior knowledge in specific content areas to test out of some college-level classes. More than 2,900 higher education institutions currently accept CLEP exams, but students should search for their school on the CLEP website before going down this path.

Student requirements

Students must register for each subject exam and score at least a 50 (out of a possible 80) to be considered for receiving credit.

What it is

The DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) help students who have learned outside the traditional classroom earn credits for that knowledge – provided they can pass an exam about the given topic. Nearly 2,000 universities and colleges currently accept DSST credits, and students can choose from more than 30 exams in college topics ranging from science and math to business and the humanities. All 30+ DSST exams have been recommended for college credit by the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service.

Student requirements

Students should speak to their institution to ensure DSST credits are accepted and if so, how many exams they can receive credit for. They should also locate the testing center closest to them and pay the exam and administration fees to schedule the test.

  • Cost

    Each DSST exam costs $85 to take. Sites administering the exam may charge an additional administration fee.

  • Where to learn more

    Students interested in taking a DSST can find more at Get College Credit.

What it is

UExcel Credit by Exam is a program offered by Excelsior College and Pearson VUE that allows students to gain college credits for knowledge they’ve acquired throughout their lives. Instead of taking a class or completing assignments, students who sign up for UExcel simply sit the exam and, if they pass, receive college credits from an approved institution. UExcel currently offers more than 60 exams in areas such as English writing, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, business, education, health sciences and nursing.

Student requirements

Students should first speak with their school to ensure credits from UExcel will be honored. If so, they can register for the exams via the UExcel website. They will then receive an Authorization to Test letter with further instructions on how to go about scheduling the exam.

  • Cost

    An exam that counts for three college credits costs $110, plus a fee of $50 for two-hour exams and $60 for three-hour exams.

  • Where to learn more

    Students can learn more at Excelsior College’s website devoted to the UExcel Credit By Exam program.

What it is

Prior Learning Assessments allow students who have gained knowledge in nontraditional ways to demonstrate their learning through the creation of a portfolio. Examples of settings where PLA credit may be gained include workplace training, military training, professional certifications, civic activities and volunteer services. PLAs are approved by the American Council on Education, but students should check with their institution to see if the school accepts them.

Student requirements

PLA is usually used in place of credits gained by examination and requires students to create an academic portfolio that maps the outcomes of their learning, provides a narrative of competencies gained and includes supporting documents. Some colleges require students to take a portfolio development workshop to learn about putting the document together.

  • Cost

    Because this process is overseen by individual colleges, the costs can vary. As an example, the University of Southern Maine charges $50 per undergraduate credit hour and $100 per graduate credit hour for any credits awarded via PLA.

  • Where to learn more

    The American Council on Education provides an Adult Learners Guide to PLA that answers many of the common questions.

What it is

The American Council on Education has recommended that academic credit be given to approximately 35,000 professional certifications, workforce courses and exams offered by employers, apprenticeships, online education, professional associations and federal agencies. Students who have participated in workforce training with their employer may be able to translate these experiences into college credits – provided their school accepts them.

Student requirements

Students should review the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT) to search for specific courses or exams that they have taken while employed. If the experience they completed is approved by ACE, they should contact their school about getting credits awarded.

  • Cost

    While ACE’s College Credit Recommendation Service is offered at no cost, students should check with their college or university to see if it charges a fee for converting workforce training into college credits.

  • Where to learn more

    The American Council on Education provides the National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training to students looking for more information.

What it is

In partnership with the Department of Defense, the American Council on Education reviews information related to military training and experience to provide recommendations on college credits. The ACE also oversees quality assurance for the Joint Services Transcript, a document used by all four branches of the military to provide information about the occupational training and experiences of individual service members. As of this time, JROTC and ROTC coursework and experience does not count. Though ACE has approved the Joint Services Transcript, it’s up to individual colleges to decide whether they award college credits. As of 2018, more than 2,300 higher education institutions accept military transcripts.

Student requirements

To receive credit for prior experience, students must find a school that accepts military training as college credits. They must also contact ACE to request a transcript be transferred to their school of choice so the institution can decide which classes are exempted.

What it is

In terms of receiving college credit for professional licenses and credentials, the American Council on Education treats it similarly to credits earned for workforce training. The College Credit Recommendation Service also oversees the process, and students can use the organization’s search tool to see if their license and/or credentials have been approved by ACE for transfer to credit.

Student requirements

Even though ACE has approved more than 35,000 licenses and credentials, students still need to check with their school to see if they will accept them. Students who aren’t sure what to look for can visit Charter Oak State College’s Credit for Credentials page to get an idea of what may be required.

  • Cost

    While ACE doesn’t charge a fee, individual schools may have administrative processing fees for converting licenses and/or credentials into college credits. Students should ask the school about this process.

  • Where to learn more

    The American Council on Education provides the College Credit Recommendation Service for individuals seeking more information.

FAQs

The following section offers answers to frequently asked questions on work and life experience credits and provides guidance from an educational expert.

How much credit can you typically earn from work/life experience?

The American Council on Education and credit by exam organizations don’t stipulate a maximum number of credits, but individual colleges and universities often do. Students should check with their school to find out how many can be earned for their specific degree.

How long does the process usually take to apply for credits?

Figuring out how long it will take to apply for credits depends on which path a student is taking to receive those credits. CLEP and DSST exams, along with challenge exams, can be taken whenever the student feels like they are prepared to pass the test. Many schools require students who want to put together a PLA portfolio to take a zero-credit portfolio workshop, and these can last as a full semester.

When trying to figure out exactly how long it will take, a student’s best bet is to reach out to either their school or the American Council on Education.

Why do only some colleges allow students to apply these types of credits toward their degrees?

According to education consultant Susan Landry, it comes down to the type of school. “In my experience, the more prestigious a school, the fewer credits by exam they allow,” she says. “Much like how a university will require students to take ‘their’ physics class – even if the student has already taken the equivalent course at another university – colleges often believe these requirements set them apart as higher quality.”

If you earned work/life experience credits at one college, can you transfer them to another college?

Simply put, it depends on the rules of the college to which you are transferring. Like other types of credits gained at previous schools, it’s up to your new college or university to assess them to see if they match up with required coursework for your intended major and if they meet other academic requirements. If so, you should be able to transfer them just like any other college-level academic credit.

Is there a particular type of student for whom these credits are especially helpful?

“These types of credits can benefit all students, specifically in allowing them to accrue credits more rapidly and at a huge cost savings,” says Landry. “They can be especially appealing, though, for students who don’t love the academic setting, or who may not do their best work in classroom settings.”

But to do well in this environment, Landry cautions that students most be focused. “Because these credits are often earned on one’s own, a certain level of self-motivation is necessary as well,” she cautions. “Many of the high school students I’ve worked with were highly motivated by the promise of only having to study a subject once and get it done.”

Is there such a thing as students pursuing too many work/life experience credits? At some point is it better for them to take the classes?

“There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for this question, in my opinion,” says Landry. “Certainly, some subjects lend themselves to being best absorbed through in-class experiences – especially courses with labs.” With that in mind, students should decide for themselves which subjects they feel they truly have a grasp of before trying to earn nontraditional credits.

“Students may find they prefer to tackle a particular subject with a teacher bit by bit rather than being tested on the subject as a whole,” notes Landry.

What is typically required for a Prior Learning Assessment portfolio?

Schools individually set the requirements for what they want to see in a PLA portfolio, but in general students should expect to use this document to demonstrate knowledge of a particular topic, where they learned it and how that learning translates to a specific college course. Students should be able to draw parallels between their knowledge and the stated outcomes of a course syllabus and provide a written reflection on the experiences they took part in to gain the knowledge in question.

How do these credits appear on a transcript?

Different schools may have different ways of identifying nontraditional learning credits, so students should ask. At Wichita State University, credit for prior learning is designated as “TCrE” and appears on the transcript as a transfer credit.

What can I do if I earned credits at an unaccredited college or university? Do I have to retake them?

Credits earned at a school that isn’t properly accredited can’t be transferred to a school that is, but students may be able to do a challenge exam, CLEP or DSST to demonstrate their knowledge. This question will ultimately be up to the school you’re attending, so it’s best to ask the Registrar about it.

Is the process of translating nontraditional learning worth a student’s time and effort?

“Absolutely, 100% yes!” says Landry. While students have different reasons for gaining credit through the various ways available, Landry sees money as one of the biggest motivators. “I cringe at students paying the massive prices for classes that they could easily gain at a fraction of the cost and time,” she says.