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How to get college credit for work experience

College credit for work experience can save money and time for nontraditional learners. Read on to learn what colleges give credit for work experience and how much credit to expect.
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Written by Matthew Sweeney, Contributing Writer on
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Wondering how to put your real-world knowledge and skills toward college? Consider pursuing college credit for work experience. 

Many colleges offer academic credit in exchange for completing a prior learning assessment (PLA), an evaluation of your non-academic skills and knowledge. Completing a PLA may help you save money and time on your degree.

Read on for our guide on what to expect when converting prior learning experiences into college credit. We cover how much credit you can earn, which colleges give credit for work experience, and more.

Why turn your work experience into college credit

Turning your work experience into college credit offers a variety of benefits, most notably including:

  • Finishing your degree faster
  • Saving money on tuition, textbooks, etc.
  • Working one or more jobs for college students while also earning credit
  • Obtaining valuable hands-on experience

You can use credit from work experience to make an already-fast program such as an accelerated bachelor's degree go by even more quickly and cheaply.

Is there a limit to how many credits you can turn work experience into?

The amount of work experience credit allowed by colleges varies. You can expect most schools to limit your work experience credit to 30. Some schools may cap allowable work experience credit even lower, at 10-15 credits.

Work experience credit caps also vary by degree level. Undergraduate programs usually allow you to transfer far more credits, sometimes up to 60.

Do all colleges allow you to earn college credit for work experience?

Many colleges give credit for work experience. You generally have a better chance of earning credit for prior learning at public universities than at private institutions.

Not all college degree levels allow you to earn college credit for work experience. Most master's programs max out at 10 credits, and Ph.D. programs typically do not accept it.

Eight ways you can get college credit for work experience

You may demonstrate experience worthy of college credits with a work experience portfolio, military experience, professional certifications, and more. 

The following are some common options.

1. Earn credit for military experience.

Armed service members can earn college credit for military experience based on the American Council on Education's (ACE) recommendations. The ACE validates its recommendations to schools using the Joint Services Transcript (JST) recognized by the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard.  

To apply for military credit, most service members use the JST website. Air Force personnel, however, must apply through the Community College of the Air Force website.

Individual schools award credit for military experience on widely differing metrics and sometimes disregard ACE recommendations.

Majors that typically award credit for military experience include:

Thanks to the ACE, the degrees required for lucrative jobs for veterans have become more attainable.

2. Pass standardized exams.

Many students earn college credit for prior learning by examination. Students sign up for and pay a fee to take brief exams on college-level topics. If they receive a passing grade (around a "C"), they may present the exam to their school to earn credit for that topic. 

The two most popular exams are the DSST and CLEP.

DSST 

The DANTES Subject Standardized Test, or DSST, is currently recognized by 1,900 schools. It features more than 30 exam topics and costs $85 per exam, not including additional test center fees. 

Each exam consists of 100 questions. Students have two hours to complete the test. Service members take their first DSST exam for free.

CLEP

Credits from the College Level Examination Program, or CLEP, are currently accepted by over 2,900 schools nationwide. The test offers 33 different topic examinations, with each examination costing a nonrefundable $89 fee.

Test centers or remote testing services sometimes tack on additional fees. Military service members can sometimes take CLEP exams for free.

3. Gather and submit a portfolio of your work.

Some colleges and universities allow learners to apply for prior learning credit with a work experience portfolio. Consider documenting:

Professional certifications (such as tech certifications or HR certifications

  • Work history
  • Training
  • Unique skills

You generally need to pay a fee of $30-$50 for the evaluation, though sometimes you can cover the cost with financial aid.

  • Prepare for submitting your portfolio by taking the following practical steps:
  • Study course descriptions to see which courses align with your experience
  • Speak with academic advisors to understand your school's policies
  • Gather all documentation in one place

SEE: How to build a coding portfolio


Schools observe different policies for earning credit through this method. Some only allow you to earn a few credits for one portfolio, while others may allow you to submit portfolios for multiple courses.

4. Earn professional certifications and licenses.

Professional certifications and licenses can also count for college credit if they're relevant to your degree. Some popular certifications and licenses that may earn you transfer credit include:

Licenses that require extensive professional development may be worth as many as 60 credits towards an undergraduate degree.

Majors where professional licenses or certifications might count for substantial credit include nursing, engineering, and computer science. Even certifications in automotive services or firefighting can count for credit in the right program. 

5. Volunteer.

You may earn academic credit through volunteering or interning off-campus. Generally, colleges require a set number of weekly volunteering hours to receive credit. 

You can often earn academic credit for volunteering abroad. Be sure to carefully vet the reputation of any program that interests you.

Popular sites for finding these overseas opportunities include:

Majors that align well with this way of earning academic credit include social work, environmental science, and urban planning.

You may get the benefit of university supervision at your volunteering position. Beware: Some volunteer opportunities can cost thousands of dollars not covered by financial aid. 

6. Conduct research.

You can also earn college credit as a high school student by conducting research. Some organizations with programs for earning college credit through research include:

Many research-for-credit programs come in an online format for the convenience of students who may be unable to relocate.

Requirements for these programs vary. Generally, applicants must be in good academic standing, with a GPA well above 3.0. The cost typically runs between $3,000-$5,000 per research topic. 

Some majors that align well with this method of earning credit might include:

7. Enroll in corporate training programs.

Corporate training courses may count for college credit. Providers of corporate training can include:

  • Businesses
  • Labor unions
  • Training suppliers
  • Government agencies

You can double check on whether a training program can earn you college credit by asking your organization's human resources department if your particular training course has been evaluated by the ACE.

Your employer usually pays for organizational training and onboarding. Thus, you not only save but earn a small amount of money for receiving credit through this method. Topics that corporate training commonly cover can include:

Business administration

8. Explore ACE's College Credit Recommendation Service's (ACE) website.

When in doubt, peruse ACE's website. The ACE website offers resources for students including:

You can order an ACE transcript of your relevant prior learning experiences, or your JST transcript, through the website.

If you are a returning or nontraditional student, consider joining ACE's community for guidance and support on how to translate your experiences into college credit.

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