How to Earn College Credit for Work Experience

Students can save time and money on their degrees by earning college credit for work experience. Most colleges and universities offer programs shown here.

Updated April 25, 2024 · 3 Min Read

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Experiences occurring outside a traditional college classroom can be just as valuable as those happening inside. As a result, real-world experiences, like on-the-job training, professional seminars, and military service, can sometimes translate to college credit.

Learners who receive college credit for work experience get tangible credit toward their degrees. A school bases the credit on a student's past opportunities, like having a job in their academic field or recently completing an internship for relevant experience.

Discover how schools evaluate and award college credit for work experience in the following guide.

What Is Credit for Prior Learning?

Credit for prior learning (CPL) gives students academic credit for work experience and other learning experiences outside the classroom, like military service or professional development opportunities. This credit applies to a college degree, reducing the number of credits students need to complete the program.

Schools typically evaluate CPL through a prior learning assessment (PLA). A PLA can incorporate several evaluation methods to determine a student's CPL, including portfolio-based assessments, standardized exams, and reviews of non-credit academic experiences.

The Benefits of College Credit for Work Experience

Students can save time and money on their degree by exchanging work experience for college credit.

Earning a bachelor's degree generally requires 120 credits. Full-time students who enroll in 30 credits per year can complete their degree in four years. Many colleges accept 60-90 transfer credits toward a bachelor's degree.

Applying CPL toward a college degree can mean finishing faster. Undergrads who earn 30 credits through their work experience can receive their bachelor's degree a year earlier than traditional students.

Learners also pay a much lower rate for work experience college credits. On average, students at four-year institutions pay $694 per credit, meaning a three-credit class costs over $2,000. In comparison, students can take a prior learning assessment and receive three credits for $93.

As an added benefit, students receive credit for what they already know.

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College Credit by Examination

CLEP Exams

What is CLEP? CLEP stands for College-Level Examination Program, which is a prior learning assessment the College Board offers. Test-takers sign up for exams offered in 34 subjects and complete the test at one of 2,000 testing locations.

The test topics include English composition, U.S. history, precalculus, biology, and world languages. Students can also take CLEP exams in financial accounting, information systems, management, and marketing.

CLEP exams cost $93 per test. Military service members and veterans may qualify for a waiver on the CLEP exam fee.

Over 2,900 colleges and universities in the U.S. grant credit for CLEP scores, and more schools accept CLEP exams than other prior learning assessments. However, before enrolling for a CLEP exam, make sure your school accepts the test. Check the CLEP college credit policy database for more information.

DSST Exams

In addition to CLEP exams, students can earn college credit by taking DSST exams. This program, the DANTES Subject Standardized Tests, were originally created to grant credit for military experience, but today any student can take DSST exams.

Test takers can take DSST exams in 37 subjects, such as business mathematics, computing and information technology, human resource management, and personal finance. Other testing areas include mathematics, humanities, technology, and education.

DSST exams cost $100 per test. Over 1,500 colleges award credit for DSST scores. Prospective test takers can search the institutions that accept DSST for credit.

CLEP vs. DSST Exams

Should you sign up for CLEP exams or DSST exams? Both tests award college credit for passing scores. However, their tests cover different topics, and not every school accepts both exams. Before registering for CLEP or DSST tests, check which exams your school accepts.

CLEP Exams

  • Exams in 34 subjects
  • Costs $93 per exam
  • Exams in business, composition and literature, history and social sciences, science and mathematics, and world languages
  • 2,900 colleges grant credit for CLEP exams

DSST Exams

  • Exams in 37 subjects
  • Costs $100 per exam
  • Exams in social sciences, math, applied technology, business, physical sciences, and humanities
  • More than 1,500 colleges grant credit for DSST exams

College Credit for Military Experience

Military-connected students can often receive academic credit for their military learning experience and service. The American Council on Education (ACE) makes recommendations on how many credits military service members and veterans should receive for their experience.

Military-connected students should request a transcript listing their training and military jobs. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs provides additional information on requesting transcripts. That transcript will list the number of credits ACE recommends colleges grant for military experience. Schools then decide how much credit to award.

College Credit for Corporate Training

Workplace training programs and professional certifications may also translate into college credits. ACE reviews workplace training programs and recommends academic credit policies. The ACE National Guide provides additional information on credit for corporate training.

Some colleges grant credit for professional licenses and certifications as well. For example, many RN-to-BSN programs grant credit for passing the NCLEX exam and holding a valid registered nursing license. Industry certifications in healthcare, technology, or business may also qualify for college credit.

Tips for Earning College Credits for Work Experience

CLEP exams, military service, and even professional licenses do not guarantee college credits. Students need to carefully research college policies on prior learning assessments and credit for prior learning.

Consider researching policies before applying to schools. Choosing a college with a more generous CPL policy can pay off.

Applicants should also research their specific certifications or corporate training programs to maximize their opportunities for credit.

Finally, check with colleges about their own prior learning assessment programs. Many colleges offer their own exams to test out of lower-division math, English, or world language courses. These programs help current students graduate faster.

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