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Get Credit for What You Know

More institutions let adults use life experience toward a college degree

En español |Maybe you learned accounting on the job. Or perhaps you taught yourself Spanish with computer programs, a few classes at a community center and conversations with your neighbors. Or you might be a history buff who's spend countless hours poring over books on World War II.

What does it all add up to? Increasingly, a head start on a college degree.

About 70 percent of colleges and universities in the United States now offer credit for learning done outside the classroom. Some have long offered credit for passing subject-matter tests, such as College Level Proficiency Exams (CLEP).

And the American Council on Education has been evaluating training offered by the military and private companies for college credit since the 1940s. But higher-education leaders, spurred on by federal and state lawmakers, have recently begun to do a lot more.

See also: How to keep your mind sharp.

Two years ago, President Obama set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 — and freshly minted high school graduates alone won't be numerous enough to meet the challenge. To appeal to adult students and get them through degree-programs quickly, more colleges are turning to prior-learning assessment. Some are designing programs of particular interest for late-career adults who will need to work longer than they expected or want to "retire" into a second career, such as teaching.

"Not everybody in that age group is going to want a credential, but for those who do, they can't ignore that this is going to save them time and money," says Pamela Tate, president and CEO of the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning.

This past year, the group launched a program, Learning Counts, to help colleges evaluate what students already know. About 90 colleges joined the early phase.

Students take a $500, six-week online course that teaches theories of prior-learning assessment and helps them develop portfolios. Professors across the country then evaluate them and determine how much college credit they're worth, which is awarded by the American Council on Education's credit service. It costs students $250 to have one to six credits assessed in each subject area.

So, for example, a student could walk away with nine college credits for $750 — three credits for the course, plus six earned through assessment.


  • Many colleges still don't advertise that they evaluate prior learning. If you're thinking about attending your local community college or four-year institution, be sure to ask an admissions officer if you could earn credit for outside learning. Find out what forms of prior-learning assessment the colleges you're interested in accept. Do they take all forms: subject matter tests, ACE credit and portfolio-based assessments?
  •  Before you talk to an admissions officer, you should jot down a list of everything you've learned — on the job, through hobbies, or while volunteering — that might be worth college credit, suggests Paul Marquardt, assistant dean of professional studies at Concordia University Irvine.

See also: AARP's Create the Good.

  • Make sure the credits you can get will be applicable to the program you're pursuing. Many colleges limit the degree programs in which they can be used. Business and teacher-certification programs most commonly accept prior learning credits.
  • Find out how the credit will be counted. It's rare for colleges to apply prior learning to requirements for a major. Commonly, it counts toward electives or general-education requirements, like English or math. If you need electives, that will still speed the time to a degree, but if you already have enough elective credit, say from another college, it won't help. Be sure to find out before you pay to have learning assessed!
  • Research the costs, because every program is a little different. Pamela Tate, of the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning, says that as a general rule of thumb, colleges shouldn't charge more than half the cost of tuition to assess a portfolio. And they should charge little to nothing to evaluate credits earned at other colleges or through tests.