Ways to Get College Credit for Work & Life Experience

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.

Two schools that offer accelerated programs are Western Governors University
and Capella University.  
WGU offers a method of learning that allows students to fast forward through work where they are already proficient, while Capella University offers FlexPath that allows students to quickly get through classes where they have experience.

No. 1 - Challenge 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 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.


No. 2 - The Academic Portfolio Option

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.

No. 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 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.

No. 4 - Professional Licenses and Credentials

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.


No. 5 - Military Training Programs

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.


Final Points to Consider

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 for 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.


The CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) is a test that grants college credit to students based on knowledge learned through professional experience, independent study, adult courses or advanced high school courses. The CLEP is recognized by about 2,900 colleges and universities, and is administered by the College Board.

The CLEP is comprised of 33 different tests in a variety of subjects, much like the SAT Subject Tests. You choose which CLEP test (or tests) you want to complete, based on the kind of college credit you’re seeking. Tests are offered in the following categories:

Composition and Literature (examples: American Literature, English Composition)
Foreign Languages (examples: College-Level French, College-Level German)
Social Sciences and History (examples: Principles of Microeconomics, Introductory Psychology)
Science and Mathematics (examples: Calculus, Biology, Chemistry)
Business (examples: Introductory Business Law, Principles of Marketing)

Usually students take CLEP tests to pass out of first- or second-year courses at the college freshman and sophomore level. Most students who take the CLEP are older, returning students. An age breakdown of students who take a CLEP test is below:

Older than 30: 34 percent
23-29 years old: 18 percent
19-22 years old: 24 percent
Under 19 years old: 21 percent


CLEP tests provide an opportunity to earn college credit in a short amount of time, saving tuition costs and shortening your time in college. Instead of paying full tuition for classes about a subject you already know, you can take a CLEP test and move into more advanced classes.

Ask your college whether they recognize CLEP test results, and if they do, which tests they recognize. Most colleges that accept CLEP results will give credit for only certain tests. In addition, almost all colleges limit the number of CLEP credits they will grant.

Individual colleges vary in terms of how much credit they will grant on each test. Some colleges may give you credit for a certain course only; others may allow you to apply the credit to your choice of courses. Or you may be granted an exemption on a course without giving you credit. There may be a stipulation that requires you to pass another class in order for the CLEP credit to count.

Other possible stipulations include being enrolled at the college where you will apply your credit, filling out additional forms through your college or passing a departmental test through the college itself.

Test Details

Where: The test is administered through 1,300 colleges and universities across the country.
When: Exam dates differ among testing centers.
Price: Each CLEP test costs $65. Your test center may also require a separate non-refundable administration fee, usually $15.

Contact your local test center for more information.

What Is on the Test?

The CLEP is a computer-based test. Because of the automated system, you can receive your results immediately after completing the test. Each exam is 90 minutes long. Exam questions are primarily multiple-choice, although some tests have require fill-in answers.

While each exam is unique in its subject matter, they all test your general knowledge and skills within that field of study. As an example, below is a breakdown of the knowledge tested in two exams

U.S. History I – 35% political institutions, behavior and public policy; 25% social developments; 10% economic developments; 15% cultural and intellectual developments; 15% diplomacy and international relations

Principles of Macroeconomics – 8-12% basic economic concepts; 12-16% measurement of economic performance; 10-15% national income and price determination; 15-20% financial sector;  20-30% inflation, unemployment and stabilization policies; 5-10% economic growth and productivity; 10-15% open economy: international trade and finance.


The test is scored on a scale from 20 to 80, where 80 is the best score you can receive. There are no additional deductions for wrong answers, however, so students are encouraged to answer every question.

You will receive your scores instantly for most subject tests. However, for the English Composition with Essay test, you will have to wait one to three weeks to receive your final scores while the essay portion is scored.

It’s up to each individual college to decide where to place the score cutoff in order for a CLEP test to count toward credit. The American Council on Education recommends a minimum score of 50 on most tests.

At the time you take your test, you may send your score to any school, employer or certifying agency you wish. If you don’t know where you want to send your scores, leave that field blank. You can send your scores at a later date for $20 each. Scores are kept on file for 20 years.

For more information about the CLEP, including a list of the schools that accept CLEP credit, check out:


You’ve seen the ads: “Earn credit for life experience! Shorten time toward degree! Pay less!” Such promises aren’t necessarily the mark of a diploma mill. Many accredited continuing education programs award “prior learning credit” for knowledge acquired from activities like political work, retail management, corporate administration, writing, even travel.

Kim J. Hartswick, academic director of the Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies, an individualized program at the City University of New York, helps students deconstruct their pasts to determine what course subjects they’ve already mastered. (Red flag: diploma mills don’t vet credit requests.) He recently counseled a student who had founded a nonprofit organization to beautify schools and hospitals. The student was given 15 credits, for proficiency in “fund-raising and development,” “creative art for the classroom” and “Web page design.”


The process varies, but nearly all colleges adhere to standards for assessment published by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, which mandates that credit be “awarded only for learning, and not for experience.” That is, you need to prove your business, travel and volunteer work led to theoretical as well as practical knowledge.Photo
Credit Nicole Fineman

Students usually submit portfolios with documentation of the experiences and essays synthesizing what was learned. At Empire State College, part of the State University of New York, you’re asked for a “table of contents for a book about what you know,” and you should be able to talk confidently in an interview about what you’ve done. The evaluation fee is $300, whatever the results. In a guide to applying for credit (, the college warns against requesting points for routine experiences like “driving a car” or “putting up bookshelves.”


The application process may take several months and require multiple meetings with academic advisers, and convincing writing skills are essential. “It’s not a quick and dirty way to get credit,” says Ann Folwell Stanford, a professor and former associate dean of curriculum at the School for New Learning, the continuing education arm at DePaul University in Chicago. There, students take a mandatory six-credit course to develop their applications and essays. “The process is fairly rigorous,” she says. “They can’t just experience something, they need to illustrate in writing how they find meaning in it.”


Continue reading the main story

Even if they do find meaning in their experiences, it may not be worth forgoing multiple classes and missing out on learning important new things — the reason for going to college in the first place.


At the Adult Degree Program at James Madison University, in Virginia, students can request up to 30 points of credit — one quarter of what is needed to graduate. More than a third of students receive prior learning credit of some kind. In the past three years, only one student’s portfolio was rejected without any points awarded.

Fifteen credits, a semester’s worth, is the maximum that Mr. Hartswick will award for CUNY’s baccalaureate program. About 10 percent of each graduating class has received some life experience credit. “People don’t realize how much they’ve learned until they really begin reviewing their lives,” he says of the applicants he sees. “Just because you’re a housewife doesn’t mean you can’t translate some of your knowledge into college credits.”

Lifetime Experience

    Career & Jobs          Scholarships          FAFSA            Loans           Grants           Forum           Questions 

​​​The Largest FREE Directory of Career Development, Scholarships, Financing Resources and Educational Information!

Career & Jobs