Get Your College Degree Faster with Prior Learning Credit

Posted by on Wed, Jul 1, 2015

prior learning assessment

If you are  returning to college or attending college for the first time as an adult student, you may be closer to a degree than you think. College credits for years of work experience, on-the-job training, or life experience in general can put you on the fast track for a degree. Anything you’ve learned that equates to the learning objectives of college-level courses can be assessed for college credit through special exams and prior learning assessment portfolios.

[Get started now with Documenting Your Experiences for College Credit, a free course from Kaplan University Open Learning.]

Planning is the key to success when it comes to applying for prior learning credit. Every college and university has its own rules on what assessments they will accept and how much credit they are willing to grant. It is best to check with any school you are hoping to attend about their specific policies before you apply.

Here are the most common methods colleges use to assess prior learning credit:


The American Council on Education (ACE) is the most widely accepted evaluator of college credit by US colleges and universities. According to ACE’s  website, “If you have ever taken courses through your employer or from training providers, completed a union apprenticeship program, earned a certification, or served in the military, you may have earned possible college credit to apply towards a degree program.” You can visit ACE’s Transcript Service to see if you have qualified and how to retrieve those records.

CLEP Exams

The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is administered by The College Board. There are currently 33 CLEP exams in five basic subject areas: History and Social Sciences, Composition and Literature, Science and Mathematics, Business, and World Languages. These standardized tests cover introductory topics a student might learn in their first two years of college.

2,900 colleges and universities accept CLEP exams for college credit to date, but each school has its own CLEP policy for what constitutes a passing grade, how many credits a student can earn, and what classes the credits can replace.

Each school’s CLEP policy should be posted online, but it can be confusing so it’s a good idea to speak with an advisor at the college to be sure of their rules. The College Board website also has a search function to help you find out which colleges and universities accept CLEP exams and to help you determine their rules. Be sure to always cross-reference the information directly with the university because updates may have been made.

CLEP exams cost $80 each in addition to a test center fee that varies. Military personnel are eligible to have their test fees waived.

College Proficiency Exams

Each college and university may administer its own subject exams, sometimes called Challenge Exams, to determine if an enrolled student qualifies for college credit. Passing grades, credit granted, and other information about the exams can usually be found by searching “proficiency exam” on each college website. Some schools will accept the proficiency exams of other schools in the same state, and some administer the standardized Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP) exams.

DSST Exams

The DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSSTs) are similar to the CLEPs, but administrated through the Department of Defense. While the exams are free for active-duty military personnel and their spouses, DSSTs are open to civilians as well. There are 38 subjects covered by these tests which are comparable to college final exams, and ACE has recommended them for 3 semester hours of credit each.

Colleges makes their own standards for passing scores, so check with a school before you test. DSST exams are accepted at over 2,000 colleges and universities and cost $80 per exam in addition to test center fees which may vary.

Foreign Language Exams

All of the above exam programs offer foreign language proficiency tests, but you may have already encountered one in the course of your work that is college accredited . Here are some examples:

  • The Defense Language Institute (DLI) administers a series of Defense Language Proficiency Tests (DLPT) to support its extensive foreign language instruction programs for active duty military personnel.
  • The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) administers a series of oral proficiency language assessment exams to test prospective US Department of State employees who will be stationed abroad.
  • The ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI)  is a globally standardized procedure for assessing functional speaking ability in foreign languages. It is administered in face-to-face or computer-based interviews with certified ACTFL testers.
  • TAL (Torah Accreditation Liaison) exams test for proficiency in the Hebrew language and may be eligible for college credit in some schools.

Prior Learning Assessment Portfolios

In addition to exams, prior learning assessment (PLA) portfolios demonstrate college-level learning that may have taken place outside traditional classrooms. According to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, prior learning assessment includes “learning and knowledge your students acquire while living their lives: working, participating in employer training programs, serving in the military, studying independently, volunteering or doing community service, and studying open source courseware.”

Assessment by portfolio is the process through which students document what they have learned from these non-college experiences and show that their learning meets the objectives of specific college courses. You must check with the college of your choice about the availability of PLA credits as well as their instructions for creating a portfolio.

[Create a prior learning assessment portfolio for free online!]

If you are still deciding between colleges to attend, speed to a degree should be an important factor. Prior learning credit will save you both time in the classroom and money spent on college tuition. Don’t forget about college courses you took in the past either—they may be eligible for transfer credit. A  college degree can help you earn more money in your current career, or even start a new one!

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