College Credit for Prior Learning Assessment

Ready to start your journey?

Are you an adult student interested in enrolling in college and wondering if you can get credit for prior learning? Then it’s worth looking into the unique opportunities provided by many colleges that allow you to gain college credit based on your life experience.

College Credit for Prior Learning Assessment

Many of the nation’s top accredited universities recognize the unique skills that adult students bring to their college degree programs. By offering college credit for life experience, these schools are able to acknowledge the prior experience of adult students and help them save time and money when furthering their education.

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To help get you started, we’ve put together the following information on the PLA process and common questions we receive from students looking to turn their life experience into college credit.

College Credit for Prior Learning

mature student working on a laptop in library

There are several ways that you can earn college credit through untraditional means, including military training, college credit by exam, and a prior learning assessment portfolio.

There are countless ways that you learn throughout your lifetime, and formal education is only one of the methods to gain skills and knowledge to support your future career.

Whether you learned a foreign language by traveling the world or have worked your way up in your current career through exceptional communication and leadership skills, all of your experiences can add up to a wealth of wisdom and college credit.

It’s important to understand that credit for prior learning does not mean that your credit will be less credible. You must meet specific eligibility requirements and go through the school’s CPL process.

CPL is CPL is not
  • A strategy for assessing a student’s learning
  • Ensures that quality and integrity are upheld by specific policies and processes
  • Creates a strategy to work with industry leaders
  • Is a full academic process
  • Free credits
  • Lacking in quality or credibility
  • Taking away from enrollment
  • Outside the academic realm as CPL uses a full academic process to determine eligibility

Typically, colleges require that you submit a portfolio or take recognized examinations that showcase your life experience throughout a process called a prior learning assessment. While this is a great option for many students, there are many important factors to consider when beginning your PLA journey.

When it comes to “testing out” some of your degree program classes, there is no across-the-board regulation for what a college will accept. Before deciding on which path is best for you, we encourage you to discuss your school’s policies with an academic advisor.

How to Get Credit for Prior Learning

college student studying online outside

Students often gain valuable knowledge outside of the classroom, and colleges that give life experience credits have clearly recognized this fact.

If you have been in the workforce, served in the military, volunteered, or earned certifications, you may be able to apply those experiences to college credits. Some of the common options include:

Colleges use several methods for determining whether you should receive life experience credit.

Credit by Exam

students taking an Exam

Students sometimes gain knowledge of subjects through self-study and non-degree programs. If you have studied a particular topic and feel that you have mastered the material, you may be able to earn college credit by taking an exam.

Organizations like the Advanced Placement (AP) Program, College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), and DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) offer exams in a range of disciplines, including social sciences, composition, science, mathematics, business, and world languages.

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Students have the option to take their selected exams at a test center or from home. Completing one or more exams may help shorten the amount of time it takes to graduate and make your degree more affordable. Many colleges accept exam credits from DSST and CLEP, but not all do. Speaking to an admissions counselor at your preferred school before taking an exam can help ensure that you don’t waste your time and money.

Military Training & Service

young men serving in the military

Serving in the military involves extensive training, and active service members and veterans may be able to translate that training to college credit.

To earn credit for military training and service, you can submit a Joint Services Transcript (JST). The JST serves as official documentation of your occupational experience and formal military training.

All branches of the military, including the Army, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, issue JSTs, but only certain colleges accept them. A school counselor at your college of choice should be able to clarify whether you can receive college credits with your JST.

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Service members and veterans also have the option of taking exams to receive college credit. The Department of Defense offers the Defense Language Proficiency Tests (DLPT), which evaluate reading and listening proficiency in world languages.

The Department of Defense also offers funding for students to complete DSST and CLEP exams, which makes it possible for members of the military to achieve substantial savings on their degree programs.

Portfolio Assessment

Man submitting files for Portfolio Assessment

Some colleges allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of a subject by submitting a portfolio. A portfolio is a collection of documents and materials that the school can assess to determine whether you have mastered a particular topic.

Portfolios are especially popular for working professionals who want to return to school. Over the course of your career, you might complete professional development activities and training sessions that allow you to gain knowledge and develop skills that apply to a degree program.

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Colleges that accept portfolios for credit often request that students enroll in a course that helps them select the right materials and develop a strong portfolio. Possible items that you might include in your portfolio include certificates, reports, artwork, and business plans.

Every college has its own standards for evaluating portfolios and determining whether you should receive college credits. This process typically involves a panel of faculty experts who carefully review your portfolio.

Industry Certifications

Man preparing his Certifications

During your career, you may have earned industry certifications through your employer, labor union, or professional organization. This is especially common in fields like health care, information technology, and business.

Some colleges and universities offer credit for approved certifications. Colleges may conduct their own approval processes or base their decisions on the recommendations of the American Council on Education (ACE) or the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS).

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Specialized certifications, such as those offered by the National Peace Officer Standard Training or the Fire Academy and Fire Service Association, may also be eligible for college credit. Most colleges that give college credit for certifications require that they be recent, such as within the past three or five years.

Speak to your college admissions counselor to determine whether your certification will qualify for course credit.

Workplace Training

professionals attending an on-site Training

If you are currently employed, you may be able to earn college credit for work experience. This is especially true if you have taken online or on-site courses as part of your workplace training.

Eligible courses are available in a variety of fields, including health care, technology, language, and business management. You will need to provide evidence that you successfully completed a course, such as an ACE transcript, in order for your college to consider awarding credit hours.

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The ACE reviews programs and determines whether they should be eligible for college credit. You can search their online database to find what they recommend for courses that you have completed. Keep in mind that colleges are not required to abide by the ACE’s recommendations.

Some may offer fewer credits for a particular course and others may not offer any credit at all. It’s essential for students to reach out to the college directly to inquire about course credit eligibility.

Volunteer Service and Internships

students joining a Volunteer Service

Students who have volunteer or internship experience may be able to apply for prior learning credit. If you volunteered for an association or completed an internship with a business or non-profit organization, you may have knowledge that is relevant to your desired degree program.

To demonstrate what you learned, you will need to collect appropriate documentation. This might include an experiential learning essay, photographs, references, and official certificates. This information is often compiled into a portfolio or presented during an interview.

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The number of credits you receive might differ based on the number of service hours you completed. Each college and university conduct a thorough review to decide how your volunteer or internship experience translates to credit hours.

Some colleges partner with international volunteer associations to offer course credit for your service. Speak with an academic counselor or advisor to learn whether your past experience might qualify.

Benefits of Prior Learning Credit to Students

Students getting to college with Prior Learning Credit

Students with professional, volunteer and military backgrounds have valuable experiences and knowledge that may translate directly to their academic programs. Applying for credit for life experiences offers many benefits, including:

  • Financial savings: Students with prior learning credits may not need to complete as many courses through their academic programs, which can save significant money on tuition and classroom materials during their degree programs.
  • Advanced course placement: If you receive credit for prior learning, you may be able to enroll in advanced courses more quickly, which may also provide the opportunity to take additional electives and specialized classes.
  • Accelerated graduation: Entering a degree program with prior learning credit may allow you to graduate more quickly because you will not have to take as many courses through your college or university program.
  • Validation of prior learning: Credit for prior learning offers psychological benefits in that it acknowledges the value of your past learning experiences, which in turn may help you feel more motivated and confident in completing your coursework. This can also help ensure that you remain enrolled in your degree program through graduation.
  • Reduced course load: Students with family or work obligations sometimes opt to enroll in college part-time, and prior learning credit may make it easier to take fewer courses each semester without negatively affecting your graduation date.

After graduating, prior learning credit may also offer advantages in your career. Future employers might recognize and appreciate that you have embraced lifelong learning and developed skills throughout both your academic and professional experiences.

How CPL/PLA Help Institutions

College Students with PLA working on a group project

CPL and PLA can help institutions and provide significant benefits to those that accept prior learning credits. Some of the ways credits for prior learning help include:

  • Recruitment: CPL offers a way for colleges to diversify student populations and broaden opportunities for recruitment. An institution that accepts CPL is especially appealing to working professionals, military veterans, and individuals who have been away from the classroom.
  • Retention: Retention rates are a key metric for schools, and offering CPL or PLA programs may help increase them. Receiving CPL can help improve student motivation. When students enter a program knowing that they already have completed credits and can graduate more quickly, it increases the likelihood that they will remain enrolled from one semester to the next.
  • Enrollment: Colleges and universities that offer CPL and PLA have an opportunity to increase enrollment. Prior learning credit is often an influencing factor when it comes to college choice, and students may also enroll in additional credits over the course of their degree programs because they qualify for advanced courses earlier in their academic careers.

Offering CPL and PLA gives colleges the opportunity to increase student satisfaction and promote student success over the long term.

How to Choose an Online College for PLA

Woman checking for Online Colleges

Many online colleges offer credit for prior learning, so there are several factors to consider when choosing which school is right for you. Important criteria include:

  • Accreditation: A school with accreditation status is likely to offer a high-quality academic experience and is unlikely to be a scam.
  • PLA policies: Reputable online colleges that offer PLA should be open and clear about their policies on their websites. Look for information on whether there are credit limits, which types of prior credit learning they accept, and the steps required to apply for credit.
  • Degree programs: Research the types of degree programs the college offers and make sure that your prior learning experiences are relevant.
  • Costs: Credit for prior learning can save you money, but some colleges may charge fees for PLA credits, in addition to any required fees for taking exams. Look into any associated costs to ensure it’s within your budget.

If you need further clarification on a school’s PLA program, reach out to the admissions office.

What is PLA?

Prior learning assessment (or PLA) 

Prior learning assessment (or PLA) is the way a college determines learning gained outside of a formal education environment. This can be accomplished in many forms, including approved examinations and evaluation of licenses or certifications.

One of the most unique options for a PLA is a portfolio-based assessment. Even if you have no prior post-secondary schooling experience, a portfolio is a way to showcase your skills, talents, and knowledge in order to take the place of certain degree program classes.

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Your portfolio may contain a variety of evidence to help your school understand why you feel your life experience should be accepted for college credit, including:

  • Experiential learning essays
  • Honors or awards
  • Samples from professional employment projects
  • Certifications or licenses
  • Resume

You can also include organizational memberships and evidence of your volunteer work. To help prepare you for submitting your PLA portfolio, most schools require you to complete a non-credit PLA preparation course where you will learn how to write, develop, and present the most effective portfolio.

How Does CPL Work?

adult student searching for college programs online

The process of earning credits for life experience depends upon the route you choose to take. For example, if you want to earn credit by examination, you can register for the approved exams online and submit passing results directly to your college.

If you choose to use the PLA portfolio option, it is important to understand that it is not a speedy process, and you will want to take into consideration the length of time you will need to adequately prepare your portfolio for review.

The typical portfolio submission process consists of the following steps:

  • Meeting with an academic advisor to understand your school’s specific PLA policies
  • Completing any prerequisite requirements and PLA preparation courses
  • Declaring the credits you will be attempting to earn through portfolio submission
  • Development of your portfolio
  • College evaluation of your portfolio, which may include interviews and additional documentation

Regardless of the path you choose to take for your PLA, it is essential that you are familiar with the specific course descriptions for the classes in which you hope to receive credit. You have the highest chance of earning credit for life experience when you can adequately prove that your knowledge base includes all areas of learning that the course covers.

How are Credits Determined?

group of students in a class lecture

If you’re wondering, “How many credits can I get for my life experience?”, it’s helpful to understand that it depends on your school’s specific policies. Most of the PLA credits by examination allow you to earn up to three credits for each exam.

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If you are using a portfolio, you may need to submit a separate portfolio for each course if you wish to receive credit. Some schools allow up to 30 credit hours to be earned through PLA, but your school’s credit limits may vary.

What Courses Can I Submit a PLA for Credit?

Submitting a PLA for Credit

Typically, schools allow a PLA in the form of examinations or portfolios to be submitted for a wide range of undergraduate courses. However, most schools will not allow credit for life experience to be applied to graduate degree programs.

By researching your school’s specific policies, you will be able to see the exact courses and descriptions that are eligible for PLA credit. Some schools have exemptions that do not allow for a portfolio to be submitted for credit in certain classes, including composition courses, “activity” courses (such as physical education), and math.

If this is your school’s policy, it is best to attempt credit by examination to receive college credit for your previous life experience.

How Much Does a PLA Cost?

university student studying online

The fees for submitting a PLA range based upon the process for earning credit that you choose. Exams, such as the CLEP and DSST, typically cost around $80 per exam and are non-refundable if you do not pass the test. Portfolios also have fees attached to them, so it is essential to understand the cost of submission before deciding if it is the best choice for you.

While the price tag of submitting a portfolio varies based on each school, they are typically between $100-300 per submission. This “submission fee” may cover a review of credit for one college course, or it may cover the assessment of as many as 12 credits. While financial aid may be able to cover any costs associated with prerequisite classes or PLA preparation courses, it cannot be used to pay for the submission of a PLA.

For students that have gained professional experience throughout the course of their everyday lives, a PLA is a great choice for demonstrating their skillset and knowledge to a university.

Is Credit for Prior Learning Assessment Worth it?

students taking Credit for Prior Learning Assessment

Yes, credit for prior learning assessment is worth it for many students. Receiving credit for prior learning may shorten the amount of time it takes to earn your degree and allow you to save money on tuition.

While it might take time and effort to prepare for standardized exams or compile the materials that you need for a portfolio, you have the chance to demonstrate that you have already mastered a necessary subject.

Students with prior learning credits are often more successful in their degree programs. They can take advanced courses earlier and are more likely to graduate.

Universities with Prior Learning Assessment Programs

Methodology: The following school list is in alphabetical order. To be included, a college or university must be regionally accredited and ooffer credit for prior learning opportunities.

Universities Accreditation
American Public University Higher Learning Commission
Athens State University Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Avila University Higher Learning Commission
Biola University WASC Senior College and University Commission
Bowling Green State University Higher Learning Commission
Bushnell University Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Centenary University Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Chatham University Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Clarke University Higher Learning Commission
Colorado State University Higher Learning Commission
Corban University Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Davenport University Higher Learning Commission
DeVry University Higher Learning Commission
Evangel University Higher Learning Commission
Georgia Southwestern State University Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Governors State University Higher Learning Commission
Indiana University of Pennsylvania Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Kennesaw State University Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Louisiana State University Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Madonna University Higher Learning Commission
Middle Tennessee State University Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Montana University System Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Moravian University Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Northeastern Illinois University Higher Learning Commission
Ohio University Higher Learning Commission
Pennsylvania State University Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Point Park University Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Post University New England Commission of Higher Education
Regent University Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
Roger Williams University New England Commission of Higher Education
Sullivan University Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
SUNY Empire State College Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Thomas Edison State University Middle States Commission on Higher Education
University of Arizona Higher Learning Commission
University of Arkansas – Little Rock Higher Learning Commission
University of Hawaii WASC Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
University of Louisville Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
University of Maine New England Commission of Higher Education
University of Memphis Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
University of North Texas Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
University of Phoenix Higher Learning Commission
University of Tennessee – Chattanooga Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
University of the Incarnate Word Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
University of Toledo Higher Learning Commission
University of Wisconsin System Higher Learning Commission
Walden University Higher Learning Commission
Weber State University Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Western Michigan University Higher Learning Commission
Wright State University Higher Learning Commission
Youngstown State University Higher Learning Commission

Earning Credit for Prior Learning

students Earning Credit for Prior Learning

Many colleges offer credit for prior learning because they realize that students can gain knowledge both inside and outside of the classroom.

With a variety of options, including examinations, portfolios, and credit for military experience, you can potentially save time and money on your degree program.

If you have mastered a subject through independent study, military service, volunteering, or workplace training, the knowledge you have gained may translate to college credit. This can save significant time and money over the course of your academic degree.

To receive credit, you may need to take an exam, put together a portfolio, or complete an interview with a faculty panel. Begin the process of getting college credit for life experience by researching accredited colleges that offer prior learning assessment programs.

With the unique opportunity of a PLA, you have the chance to get on the fast track to graduation and get started on pursuing the career of your dreams quicker than you ever thought possible.

Ready to start your journey?
Kama Offenberger
WRITTEN BY Kama Offenberger

Kama has a master's degree in English from Virginia Tech and a bachelor's in English from Concord University. She previously taught college-level English composition, literature, and English as a second language courses. She is now a full-time writer in the education field, with a particular focus on educational technology and pedagogical best practices for English language learners.