Fast-track Your Degree With Prior Learning Credits

What if there was a way you could save money and earn your degree in less time, just for demonstrating what you already know? There may be – if your school accepts prior learning credits.

Prior learning credits are one way these schools reward students who have shown proficiency in certain subjects. The credits can count toward a degree program’s requirements and may also strengthen a student’s academic experience. Students who are able to enter school with a few credits under their belt can save time and money, and focus on learning new things.

Traditionally, college transfer credits come from previous higher education courses. However, some online degree programs now recognize that students, and particularly adult learners, bring with them a wealth of knowledge and expertise from their employment and living experiences.

“The value of a strong prior learning program is that it makes a strong connection between work and what [students] are learning,” said Don Fraser, director of education and training for the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

There is no standard process by which prior learning credits are granted. Some schools may require students to prepare a portfolio that outlines their experience and expertise. Each portfolio is then reviewed, and credits granted, based upon the depth of the student’s knowledge. Other online degree programs may require standardized testing to determine competency and award credits. Still other colleges may not offer credits but instead waive class requirements based upon previous experience.

“[At WGU], you don’t directly earn credit for life or work experience, but if previous experience has given you the skills and knowledge, you can take your final assessment right away and finish the course as soon as you’re ready,” said Pat Partridge, vice president of marketing and enrollment for Western Governors University. “You can determine when you’re ready through the results of a pre-assessment and by discussing it with your personally assigned mentor.”

As you begin the online college admissions process, ask about the availability of prior learning credits and how the school determines eligibility. In addition, be aware that some online degree programs may charge a fee for the credits. Generally, this amount is less than the cost of tuition for the same number of credits. Before enrolling, students should understand both the final price as well as their payment options.

In addition to prior learning credits, many online degree programs approve college transfer credits for courses completed at other institutions.

“WGU accepts qualified transfer credits from your previous college experience for our undergraduate programs,” said Partridge. “We’ll do a personal evaluation of your transcripts from prior colleges to determine whether you’ll be able to clear any degree requirements.”

Fraser advises students to check on the availability of prior learning credits and other college transfer credits before beginning the online college admissions process.

“Do your research about what they take before paying the application fee,” said Fraser. “Some schools might not accept major-specific credits; they may only apply credits to general education requirements.”

According to Fraser, students shouldn’t just ask whether the school offers prior learning credits in general. Instead, they should inquire about the specific credits they wish to transfer and find out whether their degree program will accept them.

For adult students, applying for prior learning credits can be one way to boost the chances of successfully completing a degree program. According to a 2010 study sponsored by The Council for Adult & Experiential Learning, adult learners with prior learning assessment credits were more than three times as likely to earn a post-secondary degree within seven years compared to their classmates without the credits.

On average, prior learning assessment credits shaved two to 10 months off the time it took a student to earn a bachelor’s degree. Associate degree holders saved 1.5-4.5 months while completing their degree program.

While the tuition savings vary depending on the institution, the study estimated sample figures for five different types of schools. With 15 prior learning credits, students could expect to save anywhere from $1,605 at a large public university to $6,075 at a large private university.

With so many online degree programs offering credits for life and work experience, students may find their degree is closer than they think. It pays to check with your online college admissions office for more information on eligibility requirements for prior learning credits and college transfer credits.