BLOG: All Things Higher Ed

9 ways to turn life experience into college credit

College credits can be earned in far more ways than you might think. Yes, they're typically earned via conventional coursework, but that's by no means the only way to make progress toward a degree. After all, the 'traditional' classroom is not the only environment that lends itself to learning.

To that end, we’re revealing how you can work toward a degree by earning college credit outside the classroom. Keep reading to learn what experience-based credits are, why they matter, and how they could reshape your college career.

Prior Learning credit can be awarded for college-level (undergraduate and graduate) learning students have already acquired from work, training, and life experiences.

More info about credit for prior learning


What are experience-based credits?

Experience-based credits provide a powerful opportunity to move closer to your degree based on what you've accomplished through continuing education, in the professional world or in the military.

These credits aren’t necessarily earned based on a 'typical' curriculum or even course equivalences. Rather, they’re awarded in recognition of all you’ve learned and experienced outside of the college classroom. They usually fall in one of three main categories:

  • Work experience - Based exclusively on professional positions held currently or in the past. This could encompass a variety of paid positions, including military occupations.
  • Training experience - Ranging from previous college courses to professional development or even military training.
  • Life experience - This may be less formal but could still qualify if pursued for a substantial amount of time — and especially if it results in college-level expertise.

How to get college credit for work experience

Versatility is the name of the game for experience-based credits, which college students can earn based on exam results, service learning, military service, or professional experience.

Documentation is essential to determine whether learning has taken place at the college level. Timing also matters; to contribute to a bachelor’s degree, work experience must be gained after high school — and when seeking a master’s degree, only experience completed within seven years of completion of your graduate degree will prove relevant.

Intrigued by the possibility of applying your unique experience to your college trajectory? Look to these exciting opportunities to gain the college credit you deserve.

1. Take CLEP exams

Credit-by-exam is a wonderful solution for verifying your knowledge and translating it into actual college credits. The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) is one of the most respected options for earning such credits. CLEP exams cover a variety of subjects and are accepted by many colleges. While it can still take considerable time to prepare for these tests, they can earn you college credits and save you money on tuition.

2. Complete Prior Learning Assessments (PLA)

You feel confident that your real-world experience can stand in for typical college coursework, but you can't assume that the admissions staff or your academic advisor will feel the same way. Thankfully, there is a reliable process for verifying which life experiences are worthy of college credit.

Known as the Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), this process involves an in-depth comparison between verified life experience and college-level learning. Your goal is not only to document what you did but also what you learned along the way.

3. Create a portfolio

As a crucial component of any PLA, a portfolio provides tangible evidence of your life experience and its value for you, the degree-seeking student. This portfolio should provide a powerful snapshot of who you are and what you've experienced. It could include:

  • Letters of reference.
  • Your resume.
  • Work samples.

PLA portfolios may also feature student-written narratives outlining previous experience, along with sources of passion and goals for the future. Continue to maintain and adjust your portfolio even after being accepted into a college program, as it can be a helpful tool when you embark on your post-college job search.

4. Take advantage of military experience

If you have a military background, you've almost certainly received high-level training from some of the most inspiring and knowledgeable individuals imaginable. It should come as no surprise, then, that much of this training will qualify for college credit.

Typically, this process centers around your Joint Services Transcript (JST), which highlights the military courses you've completed, as well as your previous occupations held with the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard. Several forms of training or work experience documented in your JST are recommended and certified by the American Council on Education (ACE).

A separate transcript may be necessary if you served with the U.S. Air Force. Electronic transcripts are available to Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) students. CCAF currently partners with the digital credentialing service Parchment to send transcripts to colleges or elsewhere upon request. Often, credits earned via the CCAF will transfer directly.

The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) Subject Standards Tests (DSSTs) offers a compelling alternative — or complement — to the aforementioned CLEP exams. While these were once strictly limited to service members, the program has since been expanded to include civilians as well.

5. Consider internships

Internships are a modern rite of passage, and these supervised experiences often provide college credit. Consider signing up for internships while still enrolled, but remember: it's also possible to gain credit for documented internships completed in the past. Keep in mind that these qualify as training experiences rather than work experiences. Still, they're a valuable component of your prior-learning efforts and will look great on your resume.

6. Participate in service-learning projects

Make a difference in your community while earning valuable college credit. Service-learning projects are a priority for many schools. They encourage students to use their newfound skills and knowledge to help those who need it most.

Completed under the supervision of advisors, these projects can instill much-needed confidence and self-respect in participants. To that end, they're increasingly built into college programs, with the recognition that active learning can be among the most impactful forms of education — particularly when it produces benefits for others as well.

7. Participate in work-based learning programs

From apprenticeships to employee training, many work-based programs provide excellent opportunities to gain hands-on knowledge. This is a common solution in many technical fields and is increasingly coming into play in the healthcare sector. As part of your PLA, these programs qualify as valuable training experiences.

8. Seek credit for professional certifications

Professional certifications are a hallmark of elite training across numerous sectors. These may have opened doors in your previous career, and now, they can do the same for your college journey. If they can be verified, these certifications should clearly demonstrate college-level learning. Such certifications are more likely to be approved if they're issued by credentialed professional associations, federal agencies, or other respected institutions.

9. Earn credits through approved training programs

Even if they don't lead to certification or are not technically classified as internships, many training programs can still be approved for college credit. A lot depends on the duration of these programs, as well as the topics covered and the level of learning — including whether they emphasize theoretical knowledge or strictly practical skills.

As with other training initiatives mentioned previously, a lot will depend on your explanation of what you learned and how you believe this will impact you as a student — and in your future career.

Why turn work experience into credits?

There is real value in life experience, which can lead to a richer and more fulfilling college journey. If you take time to acknowledge this experience and pursue credits that reflect your unique background, you'll gain a greater appreciation for the supplemental skills and knowledge found through traditional college coursework.

Another compelling benefit? Equipped with experience-based credits, you can dramatically decrease the time it takes to earn your degree. This, in turn, will also reduce tuition expenses, as you may only need to complete a few conventional college courses to graduate.

Finally, the act of seeking a PLA or other verification will help you determine what you have left to learn. The sooner you identify these knowledge gaps, the easier you'll find it to establish concrete goals for your future academic pursuits.

Pursue your unique path to a college degree

At Central Michigan University, we believe that there is no one perfect path to getting your college degree. Depending on your background and plans for your future, you may be eligible for solutions that take your life experience into account.

Our prior learning approach is unique because we base awarded credits on competencies rather than course equivalence alone. Even if we don't offer a course in a specific area related to your experience, you may still be eligible for credit.

With our prior learning program, it's possible to earn up to 60 undergraduate or 12 graduate credits based on your background outside of the college environment. From there, you can focus on taking classes in the areas that matter most as you prepare for a rewarding and successful career.

Don't miss this opportunity to expedite your path to a college degree. We'd love to discuss your plans, so feel free to get in touch with our admissions office.

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