Can You Get an Accredited Life Experience Degree?

How to Earn College Credit for Learning Outside the Classroom

If you are one of the 40% of undergraduate college students who are over age 24, you probably have at least some work experience and knowledge under your belt. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to transfer it into college credits or use it to avoid taking relevant courses? Think of your savings in terms of time and money. You could graduate in less than four years and possibly save several thousands of dollars in tuition.

Many people want to earn what is sometimes called an accredited life experience degree, a college degree based entirely on learning outside the classroom. The reality is most legitimate institutions of higher learning don’t grant degrees to students solely for their work experience. What most do, instead, is waive a few courses or grant a limited number of required credits to students who can demonstrate knowledge in particular subject areas. You will still have to take many college courses, but hopefully not any classes that teach material you have already mastered.

Many colleges offer a variety of options for students to earn credit for prior learning or may waive certain classes for those individuals. For example, students may take exams or submit portfolios to demonstrate their knowledge. Those who have taken courses through corporate training programs may use them as a substitute for related college classes. Individuals who have passed professional licensing or certification exams may also get college credit. Many institutions grant college credits to military service members for training both inside and outside the classroom. This article will examine the various options that may be available to you.


Students seeking college credits for prior knowledge may opt to take an exam to prove learning outcomes. These are sometimes referred to as challenge exams. Some schools administer their own exams or students may take standardized tests.

College and University Administered Tests

Your institution or academic departments may administer exams that test whether you have mastery of the material covered in a specific course. The school or department may develop an exam for this purpose or it may use the final exam taken by students who have completed the class.

Rather than taking a test at your own school, you can instead sit for one offered by Excelsior College,  a New York State accredited institution. Many schools allow students to transfer the credits from these tests, called UExcel Exams. They are available in a variety of subjects typically taught at many colleges and universities. Prices vary.

Standardized Tests

The College Board and Prometric are two companies that between them administer about 60 exams-for-college-credit. Many institutions accept passing scores in lieu of taking courses but usually limit the number of exams a student can use. While you will have to pay to take an exam—unless you are an eligible member of the military—it costs much less than the over $1000 it can cost to take a single class at some colleges. It will take time and effort to prepare for an exam but it doesn’t come close to the number of hours you will have to spend in a classroom and the time studying and writing papers.

CLEP Exams are standardized tests that allow students to earn credit for introductory-level college courses in composition and literature, world languages, history and social sciences, science and mathematics, and business. The College Board administers 33 CLEP Exams. Not all schools grant credit for CLEP. Those that do may only accept some exams, and set minimum test scores and caps on the number of credits they grant per exam and in total. The fee for each exam is $87 (3/5/2019).

Prometric administers DSST Exams, which, like CLEP Exams, are also standardized tests. There are over 30 exams in a variety of broad subject areas including social sciences, math, applied technology, business, physical sciences, and humanities.  The cost of taking a DSST exam is $85 (3/5/2019).

Portfolio Assessment

Some institutions allow students to earn credits by submitting portfolios that demonstrate college-level knowledge in particular subjects. To take advantage of this option, you will typically have to take a for-credit course that will provide guidance on building your portfolio. There may also be an online option.

Upon completing it, you will submit your portfolio. The college or academic department will decide whether it adequately proves proficiency in the given subject.

Corporate Training Programs and Professional Licenses and Credentials

Many companies offer corporate training programs to their employees. While their goal is to have a highly competent staff, it also gives workers valuable tools they can take with them to other employers or use to earn a degree. The American Council on Education’s (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT (R)) and the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) make recommendations to colleges and universities about whether to grant credit for those courses.Non-traditional students who have licenses or other professional credentials may also be able to get their institutions to give them college credit or waive required courses. Licensing agencies and credential issuing entities are among the organizations Credit(R) and NCCRS evaluate.Use The ACE National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training to search for ACE’s credit recommendations for organizations, courses, and exams. Search the CCRS Directory for that organization’s recommendations.

Military Training

Many institutions, accept transfer credits for military service members’ training, education, and occupational experience. Active service people and veterans who are serving or served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard should obtain a Joint Services Transcript (JST). The American Council on Education (ACE) evaluates military training and job experience and documents it on the JST, which contains credit recommendations, academic exam scores (CLEP, DSST, ACT, etc.), and academic coursework.Air Force members can earn an associate degree from Community College of the Air Force. This institution partners with Air Force schools as well as civilian colleges and universities. It awards applied science degrees in 71 degree programs.

Current military service members may take, for free, CLEP or DSST exams. DANTES (Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support), which provides education and career-planning programs to U.S. Armed Forces military members at no cost to them, funds only first attempts at these exams. Free online test prep is also available.

How to Get Your College or University to Grant Credit or Waive Courses

  1. Talk to your advisor to learn about the options at your institution. Does it accept credit for prior learning and if so, through what channels: exams-for-credit, portfolio assessment, or credit for corporate training or professional licenses and credentials?
  2. The best time to have this discussion is before registering for classes to avoid taking and paying for any unnecessary ones.
  3. Find out what your next steps should be and what the associated fees are. For example, you may have to pay for an introduction to portfolio class or there may be an administrative fee to transfer credits.
  4. If your school works with NCCRS or ACE, see if any corporate training programs, other courses, or exams you took are eligible by using The ACE National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training or the CCRS Directory.
  5. If your school accepts NCCRS’s or ACE’s recommendations, request the organization that sponsored the program send a transcript to your school’s registrar’s office so that it can be considered for credit.6. If your school does not work with NCCRS or ACE, you may still be able to use the organizations’ recommendations to make your case.