6 Ways to Earn College Credit for Life and Work Experience

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Former tutor Stefanie Grodman has a bachelor's degree in English from Muhlenberg College. She enjoys researching and writing about a variety of topics including education, sustainability, politics, and the arts....
Updated on April 17, 2023
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  • Students can pursue many options to earn college credit outside a conventional classroom.
  • ACE assesses nonacademic programs for college credit equivalency.
  • Professional credentials, including military experience, can translate into college credit.
  • Students may earn credit based on exams, competency-based education, and portfolios.

Older individuals make up a significant chunk of college enrollment numbers — more than 20% of college students are over the age of 25. Additionally, the average age for a part-time student is about 27 years. Most of these learners enter their programs with ample work experience, and many continue to hold a full- or part-time job while pursuing their education.

Receiving college credit for life experience can make higher education more affordable and accessible, allowing students to spend less time in a traditional classroom. Fortunately, many schools award college credit based on a student's credentials, professional training, test results, and other life experiences.

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Ready to Start Your Journey?

1. Military and Law Enforcement Experience

Many individuals with military and law enforcement experience can use their background to gain college credit. Even bootcamps or basic training can be translated into credits, equivalent to first aid and physical education classes.

The American Council on Education (ACE) collaborates with university faculty members to assess which college credits should be awarded based on an individual's experience. For military students, these credits are then added to a student's joint services transcript. During this process, ACE conducts occupation and course evaluations, identifying skills that military personnel have acquired in their training and then matching them with analogous college curricula.

The number of credits students can earn from military and law enforcement experience varies dramatically between colleges. Military-friendly schools might offer veterans 20 or more general education credits. Additionally, for those working in law enforcement, police academy courses are particularly transferable for students seeking criminal justice degrees; these individuals can qualify for 30+ credits, saving more than 25% on tuition costs.

Find a Program That's Right For You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

2. National Testing Programs

Testing out of college-level courses can be a convenient tuition-saving strategy. Students looking to streamline their coursework and make use of prior academic knowledge can earn college credit by taking national tests. Check out our guide to earning college credit with prior-learning assessments for more information on exams that can lead to college credit.

College Level Exam Program (CLEP)

The College Level Exam Program is one of the most popular options for students looking to receive college credit for life experience. The program offers 34 single-subject tests and five general exams that focus on undergraduate-level English, humanities, math, natural sciences, and social sciences.

A student who passes each of the five general exams could be eligible for up to 30 college credits — the equivalent of a full undergraduate year. Test-takers pay an $87 fee per exam and test at one of 1,800 approved testing centers in the United States.

DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST)

DANTES Subject Standardized Tests allows students to test out of college-level courses. Students can choose from 37 subject exams to supplement their academic credentials in the social sciences, humanities, mathematics, and more.

The pass/fail exam is graded on a scale of 200-600, with 400 being the minimum passing score. Students are then able to earn up to 4.5 credits for each test passed. The tests cost $85 each and are administered at over 700 locations throughout the United States. For more information, visit the DSST website.

3. Corporate Training Programs

Many companies offer specialized training programs to build employees' skills, and some of these professional development courses are transferable as college credit. This can be financially advantageous, as the costs of this training are typically covered by the company.

ACE's College Credit Recommendation Service reviews corporate education course curricula and assesses whether classes align with traditional college courses. Approved courses typically earn professionals 1-4 credits.

Corporations like Walgreens, McDonald's, and AT&T offer ACE-approved training programs. AT&T, for example, offers a common equipment for radio communication course, which can earn employees three college credits after they complete the 120-hour class. Additionally, Walgreens University offers transferable credit for its training and partners with accredited universities, giving employees tuition discounts on traditional courses.

4. Professional Credentials

For students who hold professional credentials, certain licenses and certifications can earn them college credit. ACE evaluates specific certification processes, assessing whether professional training should be considered for college credit.

The potential number of credits a student can earn varies greatly depending on the certification and institution. For example, a technical certification like the Cisco-certified network associate (CCNA) routing and switching credential is considered the equivalent of six college credits at Excelsior College, while a CCNA security credential is worth three college credits.

To learn more about what credentials will qualify as college credit, refer to ACE's National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training.

Some popular credentials that are eligible for college credit include the following:

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    Certified public accountant certification
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    Chartered financial consultant certification
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    FAA pilot, engineer, and mechanic licenses
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    Respiratory therapy technician certification
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    Aviation licenses
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    Real estate licenses

5. Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) is a learning alternative usually tailored toward adult learners with ample military or work experience. These individuals often have academic gaps, but they also hold strong background knowledge in many areas.

While other credit-earning alternatives use stringent guidelines and classroom hours to assess credit eligibility, CBE measures education by the overall knowledge gained by an individual. Students can accelerate and personalize their courses, allowing them to test out of course segments they're already familiar with.

This model of education is slowly gaining traction. A handful of accredited institutions, like the University of Wisconsin, Northern Arizona University, and Purdue University, have adopted self-paced CBE programs. The University of Michigan, for example, uses CBE learning in its master of health professions program.

Many CBE programs are remote, which may appeal to learners interested in earning online college credit for work experience.

6. Portfolio of Experience

Students whose credentials are better expressed through writing and research rather than traditional testing might be able to submit an academic portfolio. Professionals with well-documented work experience might consider compiling relevant work materials, like business plans, certificates, and reports, to maximize potential college credit for their work experience.

Institutions that award credit in this way have different methods of evaluating portfolios. Some schools require students to complete coursework that covers academic portfolio-building, whereas others allow students to compile their work independently based on set guidelines but charge students for the evaluation process.

The number of credits students can earn from submitting portfolios largely depends on the school. The Pennsylvania State University, for example, offers 3-6 credits per course-specific portfolio, while Thomas Edison State University does not put a formal limit on how many credits students can earn in this manner.

Key Factors to Consider When Earning College Credit for Experiences

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    Check Your School's Policies

    Students can earn credits in many ways while spending fewer hours in a traditional classroom; however, every school maintains different policies regarding what experiences, training programs, and tests it'll accept as credit. It's important to check with your school to determine how many credits you can earn for your work, life, and/or academic experiences.

    Keep in mind that many schools will not allow students to earn more than a total of 30 credits for these alternatives.

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    Beware of Scams

    When looking for opportunities to apply life and work experience to college programs, students should be wary of scams. Programs that award a full degree based on work experience alone may not be legitimate.

    Additionally, life experience credits are almost exclusively offered for undergraduate degree programs, so beware of graduate programs that promise college credit for life experience. Make sure to thoroughly research any programs you're considering, verifying that they're accredited by a legitimate organization.

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    Research Costs

    While finding alternatives to traditional coursework can help you save money, there are still some expenses involved. Depending on a school's policies, receiving college credit for life experiences through tests, licenses, certifications, CBE programs, or portfolio evaluations can come with associated fees.

    For example, tests like the CLEP and DSST can cost students around $85 each, while portfolio reviews can cost hundreds of dollars. It's vital that you consider these costs when determining whether an opportunity is worth pursuing.

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