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I went to the school of hard knocks. Life is the best teacher. You may have heard these adages before, and there is some truth in them. Many of us do learn from life experiences. While the learning may not always be welcomed at first, we may look back and see how much we’ve grown. We might even be amazed at the knowledge we gleaned—even if the process was filled with potholes. What if you could use those life experiences and turn them into college credits via a “life experience” degree program?
With many nontraditional students returning to college—single moms, professionals seeking new career paths, full-time employees who want to finish their undergrad work—new challenges arise. Trying to juggle family life, work, and earning an online degree isn’t easy. However, if you could transform certain life experiences into legitimate, academic credits that would be accepted by quality, accredited colleges, you may find yourself inspired and motivated to earn that Bachelor’s or Master’s degree you have your heart set on.
Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) and Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)
Life experience programs involve Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) and Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). These are educational concepts designed to recognize and give credit for the knowledge and skills that individuals have acquired outside of traditional academic settings. These mechanisms provide a means for learners to demonstrate their proficiency in specific subject areas and potentially earn college credits for their prior experiences.
Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) generally refers to the broader concept of recognizing various types of prior learning, including knowledge gained through work experience, military training, certifications, and self-directed study. It acknowledges that learning occurs in diverse settings and not solely within the traditional classroom environment.
Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) is a specific process within CPL that involves assessing and validating an individual’s prior learning to determine its equivalency to college-level learning. PLA methods may include examinations, portfolios, interviews, or demonstrations of skills. The goal is to evaluate and quantify the knowledge and competencies a person has acquired outside of formal academic courses.
Both CPL and PLA aim to support adult learners, non-traditional students, and those with significant life or work experiences in gaining academic recognition for their existing knowledge and skills. These approaches contribute to a more flexible and inclusive educational system by allowing individuals to accelerate their degree completion, reduce the time and cost of education, and align their academic journey with their real-world experiences.
What questions should you ask yourself to determine if earning college credit for life experience is right for you?
- Is my knowledge up-to-date?
- Is my learning similar to a certain class described in my college’s course catalog?
- Does my learning correlate to the subject or major I will be studying at my university?
- Do I understand the ideologies behind what I have done as well as the concrete steps I took to gain my life experience?
If you answered “yes” to the above questions, participating in a life experience degree program may be an option for you. Of course, only certain online colleges and universities offer these programs, so you should check with the college you are interested in to ensure they have such a program and that they will accept your life credits.
1. Standardized national exams You could earn college credit for your work experiences by taking a standardized national exam in an area that relates to the skills and knowledge you acquired through your work or other life experiences. Two such exams include:
- CLEP exams: Exams are available in 32 subject areas in the categories of History and Social Sciences, Composition and Literature, Science and Mathematics, Business, and World Languages
- DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) (this test used to be only for military personnel—now it is also available to civilians): Exams are available in 30 subject areas in the categories of Business, Humanities, Math, Physical Science, Social Science, and Technology.
Prepare a portfolio that documents your life experiences, achievements, and skills relevant to the courses or subjects you are seeking credit for. Include resumes, certificates, transcripts from non-academic training programs, and any other relevant documents.
Military experience Using military experience for college credit is a common practice, and many institutions have policies in place to recognize the skills and knowledge gained during military service.
Start by obtaining your military transcripts, such as the Joint Services Transcript (JST) for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard or the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) transcript for the Air Force. These transcripts outline your military training and experience. Then check out the American Council on Education (ACE). This organization provides recommendations on how military training and experience may be equivalent to college-level credit.
Competency-based education (CBE)
Competency-Based Education (CBE) is an educational approach that focuses on learners’ mastery of specific skills and knowledge rather than traditional time-based structures. In CBE programs, students advance upon demonstrating their proficiency in the subject matter, allowing for a more flexible and personalized learning experience. They could skip units or sections of courses that cover what they already know. Look for colleges that offer CBE programs. Once you are in a program, you may be tested to assess your current knowledge.
Work experience through corporate training
Some institutions have procedures in place for evaluating and granting credit for corporate training. The American Council on Education Learning Evaluations helps colleges determine which college credits to offer in exchange for these types of programs.
You may look around you at work and realize that you know more about your job than your co-workers with college degrees. If so, you should consider earning credits for your life experiences and check into college life experience programs that you might enroll in. It’s never too late to earn your degree. With so many flexible, online, college degree programs, you should have many options for finding a program for you that works for you!
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