20 Affordable Online Colleges That Offer Credit for Work Life Experience 2024

best colleges that accept credit for life experience

Reviewed By: Melissa Anderson, MS.Ed. / First Covered: March 2024 / Reading Level: Grade 9

Key Takeaways:

  • Over 2,000 American colleges offer credit for work life experience, rewarding nontraditional students with rich backgrounds.
  • Top online schools in the US, like Charter Oak State College, recognize and award credit for life experiences.

There are various options these days when it comes to distance education. Most online learners have one thing in common, though—they want a degree, and they want it fast. Enter online colleges that offer credit for life experiences. These schools cater to the nontraditional student who has a rich background, whether it be professionally or experientially. They reward students for what they’ve already learned, even those who have never stepped foot in a college classroom before.

Featured Programs

Over 2,000 American colleges and universities offer credit for work life experience. Most of these are four-year universities, though some community colleges and some schools also award credit for prior learning and work experience. In this ranking, our editors highlight the 20 top schools in the United States that give credit for life experience.

Finding the Best College for Work Experience Credits

In our search for the online colleges that give credit for work experience and life experience, we began with an initial pool of 51 colleges and universities. These schools offer undergraduate and/ or graduate degree programs online and also award credit for life experience. To narrow this pool, CVO editors applied the tuition filter, eliminating schools with tuition costs exceeding $25,000 per year. Next, we used our site-wide methodology to rank the following 20 schools deemed the top online colleges that give credit for work experience/life experience.

#20—Post University

Waterbury, Connecticut

Website

Points: 8

Tuition: $17,100

Post University is arguably one of the top colleges that give credit for life experience, especially for students seeking an associate’s degree. The university’s Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) program allows students to apply up to 15 credits to an associate’s degree program or 30 credits to a bachelor’s degree program based on prior knowledge. To apply for this credit, students must enroll in a dedicated portfolio course and submit a portfolio proving their experience in a specific field. Admissions counselors work alongside students to help them earn the credit they are due. In some cases, state licensure exams may be required to earn credit. Post University is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

Pros:

  • Nationally ranked online programs
  • High acceptance rate
  • Diverse student body

Cons:

  • Low graduation rate
  • Larger class sizes
  • Less affordable

#19—University of South Carolina-Upstate

Spartanburg, South Carolina

Website

Points: 8

Tuition: $11,583

Students attending the University of South Carolina – Upstate have five different pathways towards credit for life experience. These include:

  • Credit for military training/courses
  • Credit by exam
  • Credit by portfolio
  • Credit for workplace training/certification
  • Credit for experience in world languages

Because of these diverse options, the school is often called one of the top colleges that accept life experience for credits. The school is institutionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Pros:

  • Top-5 public school
  • Smaller class sizes
  • Diverse student body

Cons:

  • Slightly more competitive
  • Lower graduation rate

#18—University of Memphis

Memphis, Tennessee

Website

Points: 8

Tuition: $10,344

The University of Memphis awards credit for life experience through its Experiential Learning Credit (ELC) Program. Through the program, students can earn credit via three avenues:

  • ELC Military Transcript
  • ELC Pre-Assessed
  • ELC Portfolio

Students can earn up to 30 credits for the program, but they are responsible for paying a fee of $75 per credit hour. Graduate students are required to pay an additional $25 fee per credit hour. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges has accredited the University of Memphis to award online credits and degrees.

Pros:

  • Nationally ranked public school
  • Diverse student body

Cons:

  • Low graduation rate

#17—Eastern Kentucky University

Richmond, Kentucky

Website

Points: 8

Tuition: $10,130

As one of the leading colleges that give credit for work experience, Eastern Kentucky University offers half a dozen different ways that students can earn credit prior to enrollment. These include:

  • ACE credit for professional certification
  • Credit by portfolio
  • Credit by exam
  • AP credit
  • CLEP
  • DANTES

With the numerous options available, it’s easy to see why EKU has been shortlisted as one of the best colleges for life experience credits. The school holds its institutional accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Pros:

  • Nationally ranked public school
  • High acceptance rate

Cons:

  • Lower graduation rate
  • Less diverse

#16—University of Massachusetts – Amherst

Amherst, Massachusetts

Website

Points: 9

Tuition: $17,357

Called the University Without Walls, UMass- Amherst is not only one of the online colleges that accept the most transfer credits, but it also awards up to 30 credit hours for prior work and life experience. Students interested in applying for credit will submit a series of essays outlining their relevant experience. This experience could include volunteer work, professional experience, or military service among other life experiences. Many students save thousands of dollars on their cost of tuition through this program. The New England Commission of Higher Education has accredited the University of Massachusetts – Amherst to award these credits for life experience.

Pros:

  • Top-ranked national university
  •  High graduation rate

Cons:

  • More competitive
  • Less diverse

#15—Baker College

Owosso, Michigan

Website

Points: 9

Tuition: $12,810

Baker College is a nonprofit provider of online education as well as one of the best colleges that give credit for work experience. At Baker, students are encouraged to apply for experiential credits, which can be earned by submitting an electronic portfolio of relevant experience, whether it be work, volunteer, military, or general life experience. A facilitator will then review the portfolio, and those scoring a grade of 70% or above will be awarded applicable credit. There is a $250 fee for the review. The Higher Learning Commission has fully accredited Baker College to award online credits and degrees.

Pros:

  • Small class sizes

Cons:

  • More competitive
  • Low graduation rate
  • Less diverse
  • Portfolio review fee

#14—Texas State University

San Marcos, Texas

Website

Points: 9

Tuition: $11,450

At Texas State University, students can apply for credit for life experience through the Department of Organization, Workforce, and Leadership Studies. Students with relevant work experience will enroll in a course entitled Prior Learning Assessment. Here, they will develop a portfolio showcasing their skill in a particular area of study. Other ways to earn credit through the university includes credit by exam and credit by noncollegiate instruction. Texas State is accredited to award online credits for life experience by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Pros:

  • High acceptance rate
  • Diverse student body

Cons

  • Large class sizes
  • Low graduation rate

#13—University of the Cumberlands

Williamsburg, Kentucky

Website

Points: 9

Tuition: $9,875

The University of the Cumberlands provides students with three distinct pathways to earn credit for prior learning:

  • Knowledge exams
  • Experiential credit
  • Certification credit

While the experiential and certification pathways are free, students may have to pay a fee for proctored examinations. Exams may only be taken once. Students are paired with a Student Success Coordinator who can help them determine which pathway is best for them. The University of the Cumberlands is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Pros:

  • Top rated for social mobility
  • High acceptance rate

Cons:

  • Low graduation rate
  • Less diverse

#12—The Evergreen State College

Tacoma, Washington

Website

Points: 9

Tuition: $8,999

To receive credit for life experience at The Evergreen State College, students will enroll in a course called Prior Learning from Experience Preparatory and Document Writing. In this course, they will work alongside faculty mentors to determine life experiences that may qualify for university credit. Once these experiences have been identified, students will compile a portfolio of documents proving their knowledge and experience in a specific area of study. Up to 30 credits may be awarded, depending on the scope of the individual student’s prior experiences. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities has fully accredited The Evergreen State College to award credits for work life experience.

Pros:

  • Top-ranked public school
  • High acceptance rate

Cons:

  • Lower graduation rate

#11—Empire State University

Saratoga Springs, New York

Website

Points: 9

Tuition: $7,630

Empire State University is widely known as one of the top colleges that accept life experience for credits. Its prior learning assessment program seeks to understand each student’s past experiences and how much college-level learning they already have. Experiences that may be redeemed for credit include:

  • Volunteer work
  • Professional experiences
  • Community activities
  • Independent study
  • Prior coursework
  • Standardized tests

A faculty mentor will help prospective students identify credit opportunities and determine the best way to demonstrate their prior learning. Empire State is institutionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Pros:

  • Top-ranked public school

Cons:

  • Low graduation rate
  • More competitive

#10—Thomas Edison State University

Trenton, New Jersey

Website

Points: 9

Tuition: $6,638

Thomas Edison State University’s Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) program enables students to earn credit for a wide range of life and work experiences. Some of these include:

  • Military experience
  • Prior work experience
  • Free online coursework
  • Professional development
  • Licensures and certification

Through its credit-by-exam approach, TESU rewards students for knowledge in subject matter, no matter where they learned it. As a contender for the best college for life experience credits, the school awards 38 credit hours per student on average for prior learning.  The Middle States Commission on Higher Education has accredited Thomas Edison State University to offer credit for life experience.

Pros:

  • Higher-than-average ROI
  • Nationally ranked nursing program

Cons:

  • Larger class sizes

#9—Columbia Southern University

Orange Beach, Alabama

Website

Points: 9

Tuition: $5,808

There are many ways students can earn credit for work and life experience at Columbia Southern University. The school has a generous policy for awarding transfer credits and also recognizes students’ prior learning. Credit can be awarded by exam or through evaluation of a student’s licensures and certifications. Many consider the school a “best” college for work experience credits. Columbia Southern has been accredited to offer online credits and degrees by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Pros:

  • High return on investment

Cons:

  • Large class sizes

#8—University of Arizona Global Campus

Tucson, Arizona

Website

Points: 10

Tuition: $13,626

There are half a dozen different ways students can earn credit for life experience at the University of Arizona Global Campus. For instance, veteran students can submit their record of military experience for evaluation. Moreover, there are various exams students can take to earn credit, including national examinations as well as the school’s prior learning assessments. UAGC has also partnered with several educational organizations such as Saylor Academy, Study.com, and StraighterLine to offer transfer credits. It’s easy to see why the school was chosen as one of the best colleges for life experience credits. The WASC Senior College and University Commission has accredited the University of Arizona to offer these credits for work life experience.

Pros:

  • Nationally ranked public school
  • Diverse student body

Cons:

  • Lower graduation rate

#7—The City College of New York

New York, New York

Website

Points: 10

Tuition: $7,340

Students can earn up to twelve free credit hours from The City College of New York through the school’s online Life Experience Program (LEP). To secure credits, students must enroll in a non-credit online workshop for the purpose of creating a portfolio of relevant work. The portfolio will showcase the student’s skill in a chosen area. Once submitted, evaluators will review the portfolio to determine whether the student has the necessary skills to fulfill the requirements for a given course. Students may submit three different portfolios for a total of 12 credit hours. The school’s affordability combined with its generous credit for life experience program makes it one of the best online colleges that accept work experience for credits. The City College of New York is institutionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Pros:

  • Nationally ranked public school
  • Small class sizes

Cons:

  • Low graduation rate

#6—University of Wisconsin

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Website

Points: 10
Tuition: $6,750

The University of Wisconsin offers credit for life experience through a competency-based education program. By completing various assessments and projects online, students can earn credits by proving their prior knowledge. Whether the prior knowledge comes from work, military service, or past coursework, students can use it to earn credits toward a bachelor’s degree. Once enrolled in the program, students are assigned an academic success coach who will help them outline the path forward. The University of Wisconsin holds its institutional accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission.

Pros:

  • Affordability
  • High acceptance rate
  • Dedicated success coach

Cons:

  • Low graduation rate

#5—Louisiana State University

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Website

Points: 11

Tuition: $7,050

LSU Online offers a credit for prior learning assessment program where students can earn credits for professional certifications and military training. Examples of the types of certificates accepted for credit include:

  • National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA)
  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
  • Talent Management Institute (TMI)
  • Project Management Professional (PMP)

Dedicated enrollment counselors are available to help prospective students navigate the process of applying credit for life experience. LSU is also one of the online colleges that accept the most transfer credits, allowing students to bring up to 90 credits from approved institutions. It holds its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Pros:

  • Top-ranked online programs
  • Transfer friendly

Cons:

  • Lower graduation rate
  • Larger class sizes

#4—Purdue Global University

West Lafayette, Indiana

Website

Points: 11

Tuition: $10,110

At Purdue Global, prospective or enrolled students can earn credit for work, military, or volunteer experience. There are multiple ways to earn this credit, including through skills assessments, portfolios, and/or online courses. Up to 33 credit hours can be earned through Purdue’s credit for life experience program. Fees required for courses and assessments may be covered by financial aid. The school’s website offers a credit for work experience calculator so students can anticipate the number of potential credits they could earn. For these reasons, Purdue has been selected as one of the top colleges that accept life experience for credits. It holds its institutional accreditation from The Higher Learning Commission.

Pros:

  • Affordability
  • Diverse student body

Cons:

  • Low graduation rate
  • Larger class sizes

#3—University of Arkansas- Grantham

Little Rock, Arkansas

Website

Points: 11

Tuition: $8,280

As one of the leading online colleges that give credit for work experience, the University of Arizona Grantham offers distance learners a variety of avenues towards college credit. Some of these paths include:

  • On-the-job experience
  • Workplace certifications
  • Volunteer experience
  • Public speaking
  • Military training

In some cases, earning credit for work or life experience could be as easy as writing an essay explaining your qualifications. The Distance Education Accrediting Commission has accredited the University of Arkansas – Grantham to award credit for work life experience.

Pros:

  • Affordability
  • 93% student satisfaction rate

Cons:

  • Low graduation rate
  • Large class sizes

#2—University of Maryland Global Campus

Adelphi, Maryland

Website

Points: 12

Tuition: $7,992

Students enrolled at the University of Maryland Global Campus have seven different ways to earn credit via work or life experience. These include:

  • Credit by exam
  • Credit for prior learning
  • Credit for workplace experience
  • Credit for professional certification
  • Credit for military education
  • Credit for vocational and technical education
  • Credit for Google certificates

Moreover, students may also redeem completed online courses through third-party sites like Coursera and Study.com for UMGC credits. For this versatility, the schools earns a spot in our ranking of the top colleges that accept life experience for credits. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education has accredited the University of Maryland Global Campus to award online credits for work life experience.

Pros:

  • Nationally ranked public school
  • Diverse student body

Cons:

  • Low graduation rate

#1—Charter Oak State College

New Britain, Connecticut

Website

Points: 13

Tuition: $8,506

Charter Oak State College is not only one of the top online colleges that accept work experience for credits, but it also offers credit for life experience. The school offers several different ways for students to earn credits before ever taking a single class. Examples include:

  • Credit by exam
  • Credit by portfolio
  • Credit evaluation program

Veteran students may also submit their military transcript for evaluation. Charter Oak College is fully accredited to award online degrees by the New England Commission on Higher Education.

Pros:

  • Better-than-average ROI
  • Small class sizes

Cons:

  • Less prestigious college

What Is Credit for Life Experience?

Credit for life experience is a type of credit awarded by colleges and universities to acknowledge what a student has already learned outside of the classroom. Different schools may have different policies for awarding this type of credit. And some schools may have different names for it as well. You may hear credit for life experience referred to as credit for prior learning or credit for work experience, for example. Because these labels can be ambiguous, it’s important for prospective students to confirm the details with their school of choice.

Who Can Earn Credit for Life Experience?

Almost anyone can qualify for life experience credits, but you will need one thing— experience! Usually, this excludes recent high school graduates (although not always). Instead, these types of programs typically favor nontraditional students who have been around the block a time or two, so to speak. They may have decided to return to school after a long professional career, for example. Or they might be a veteran student who has just returned from a tour of duty. Moms and dads who completed some college prior to embracing parenthood are also ideal candidates for credit for life experience programs.

Benefits of Credit for Life Experience

Distance learners have a lot of options in terms of where to attend school. For some students, it may make sense to prioritize online colleges that accept life experience for credits. In this section, we’ll discuss a few of the many benefits of attending a school that recognizes a student’s prior experiences.

Saves Time and Money

Time and money are two of the most important things to consider when looking for a school and degree program. Colleges that award credit for work and life experience can help you save on both. Credit for life experience can put you closer to graduation before you even take a single class. And while some schools charge fees for these credits, others do not. At the very least, you can expect to save some money on tuition when you apply your life experience to your degree plan. That’s not to mention savings on course fees and materials.

Boosts Morale

For many nontraditional students, it can be demoralizing to start school as a lowly freshman after years in the workplace. It could even feel like starting all over. With credit for life experience, though, these students get the boost they need to begin their educational journey with confidence. When colleges and universities award real credit for past experiences, they validate students’ knowledge and background, acknowledging that they have more to bring to the table than someone fresh out of high school.

Promotes Diversity in Higher Education

Credit for life experience programs stand to transform college classrooms across the country. Instead of virtual classrooms packed with young adults and recent high school graduates, these classrooms could see more representation when it comes to older adults and seasoned professionals. This diversity benefits everyone, not just nontraditional students. Adult learners with more real-world experience have the potential to enhance the curriculum for college degree programs, providing meaningful contexts for higher education concepts.

Downsides of Credit for Work and Life Experience

For many nontraditional students, the idea of receiving credit for life experience may seem like a dream come true. Still, nothing in life is perfect, and higher education is no exception. Thus, there are some disadvantages to programs that award life experience credits. It’s important to be aware of these downsides, so that you can weigh them against the benefits of such programs.

Problems with Verification

Having life experience that’s equivalent to college coursework is one thing, but proving it can be quite another. Depending on the school’s policies and its method for evaluating credit for life experience, some students may find it impossible to receive the credit they deserve. For example, if a significant amount of time has passed since the relevant experience, or if the student lacks adequate documentation, there may be problems with verification.

Non-Standardized Policies

Different schools have different policies for awarding credit for life experience, and this lack of standardization can cause problems for some students. For example, it may prevent students from attending the school they prefer or from transferring from one school to another.

Lack of Skills Alignment

Credit for life experience programs attempt to align skills learned in life with those taught in college classes. While this is a good idea in theory, it doesn’t always work out perfectly in practice. Sometimes, credit may be awarded for skills that have not yet been learned, which can have an adverse effect on a student’s academic performance. That is, they may be promoted to advanced classes that require certain prerequisite knowledge that they don’t actually have. In these cases, getting credit for foundational coursework may not actually work out in the student’s favor. They could find themselves struggling in upper-level classes without the skills they need for success.

What Qualifies As Life Experience for College Credits?

Credit for life experience can look different depending on the school you’re applying to. That’s because individual schools have unique policies for what type of experience qualifies for credit. Still, there are some common experiences that typically count towards a degree. Some examples include:

  • Volunteer experiences
  • Community work
  • Professional certifications
  • Standardized tests
  • Non-degree online courses
  • Military service
  • Employment

What Kind of Coursework Is Eligible for Life Experience Credit?

Not all coursework is eligible for credit for life experience, but ultimately, this will depend on the specific college or university you plan to attend. In this section, we’ll identify some of the common types of classes and credits that can be earned via life experience credit.

General Education Credits

General education credits include the coursework typically required for an undergraduate degree. This includes a bachelor’s degree or associate’s degree. As their name implies, general education classes include general subject matter in areas such as liberal arts, humanities, mathematics, and science. Together, these courses make up the basic skillset and knowledge expected of a college graduate.

Elective Classes

Elective classes are those that aren’t specifically required for a degree plan. Instead, they’re offered as optional coursework. Students may be asked to complete a certain number of electives, depending on the curriculum guidelines for their degree. Sometimes, electives are used to tailor the degree to a specific sub-field or area of interest. Students may strategically choose electives related to their desired career path.

Core Classes

Core classes are those that make up the most substantial portion of the degree program. They are directly related to the student’s major and consist of coursework fundamental to the skills needed to graduate.

How Do Schools Award Credit for Life Experience?

Just as different schools have different policies for the types of experiences they accept for credit, they also have different ways of assessing these experiences. In this section, you’ll learn more about how potential credits are evaluated and awarded.

Credit By Portfolio

One of the most common ways colleges award credit for life experience is through a portfolio. To earn credit towards a degree, students will outline their experiences in portfolio format, showcasing how these experiences taught them concepts aligned with a certain course or degree. Depending on the school’s policy, they may be required to complete a project or write an essay for inclusion in the portfolio.

In some cases, students will enroll in a portfolio course where an instructor will assist them with the process of earning their desired credits. In other cases, students may be assigned online mentors who can aid them in the process of earning credit by portfolio. Most schools limit the number of credits a student can earn via the portfolio method, but this will vary by college or university.

Credit By Exam

A more straightforward method of earning credit for your life experiences is through a process known as credit by exam. Using this method, colleges and universities simply administer an exam for students to take in order to earn credit for a specific course. Many schools use standardized tests developed by the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) or DSST. Students must earn a passing score on the test to receive credit. If they fail, they will be required to take the course in question, regardless of any relevant experience in the subject. Schools who use this method sometimes refer to the credit awarded as “credit for prior learning”. This is perhaps a more accurate description, since credit is awarded based on the student’s knowledge of course material, rather than for a specific experience.

Credit By Certification

Another relatively simple way that schools can award credit for life experience is through credit by certification. Using this method, colleges and universities award credits for certifications students have earned in professional settings and through third-party educational platforms like Coursera, edX, and StraighterLine, for instance. Most schools that use this method follow the national guidelines set forth by the America Council on Education (ACE).

Credit for Military Service

Schools may award credit for military service in various ways. For instance, they may use one of the above methods of awarding credit. Or, they may have a special method reserved specifically for veteran students. For example, some colleges and universities require students with military experience to submit their official Joint Services Transcript (JST) for evaluation. Based on their review, they will award credits aligned with specific coursework that reflects the student’s experience.

The Importance of Accreditation for Work Life Experience Credits

Accreditation is the standardized process for evaluating and approving institutions of higher learning in the United States. It’s an important factor in determining where to attend school because it confirms that the college or university you’re considering is legitimate. Verifying a school’s accreditation status can help you avoid scams and ensure you get the quality education you deserve.

Some of the largest accrediting agencies in the U.S. include:

  • The Higher Learning Commission
  • The Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • The New England Commission of Higher Education
  • The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Higher Education
  • The WASC Senior College and University Commission
  • The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

You can check a school’s accreditation status on the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) website.

Other Things To Consider When Finding a School for Work Life Experience

When looking for a college or university that accepts work life experiences, accreditation is a must. Still, there are other factors to consider as well.

Affordability

Higher education is expensive, and tuition rates rise every year. It’s important for students to consider expenses when choosing a college or university. Affordability may be even more important for non-traditional students who are already juggling other financial responsibilities.

When considering which schools you can afford, tuition is just one of the factors to examine. Some schools offer financial aid such as grants and scholarships to help students fund their degree plans.

ROI

ROI—or return-on-investment—is another thing to keep in mind when looking for schools that accept credit for life experience. In terms of higher education, ROI refers to the amount of money on average that graduates of a specific college or university typically make weighed against the tuition they’re expected to pay. Schools with the best ROI have low tuition and are associated with high median salaries after graduation.

Flexibility

Flexibility can be important for any student, but it’s particularly crucial for nontraditional students and those seeking credit for work life experience. While online schools are typically associated with convenience and flexibility, some are more flexible than others. Depending on your availability, you may wish to choose an asynchronous program. These types of programs allow you to complete your school assignments when it’s convenient for you. Synchronous programs, on the other hand, require specific login times and may have more stringent deadlines. Other markers of flexibility include part-time scheduling options and multiple start dates.

Frequently-Asked Questions About Credit for Work Life Experience

It’s normal to have questions about enrollment in higher education. And when you’re considering credit for work life experience, the stakes are even higher. Here are some of the questions students like you often ask about credit for life experience programs:

Q: How many credits can I earn through credit for life experience programs?

A: Individual schools set limits for the maximum number of life experience credits they will award to each student. Talk to an admissions counselor or visit the school’s website for more information.  

Q: Do schools charge tuition for the life experience credits awarded through these programs?

A: It depends on the school. Some colleges and universities may award credit for life experience at no charge while others may charge a fee per credit hour. Still others may require students to enroll in a course prior to receiving life experience credits.

Q: How will credit for life experience affect my GPA?

A: It might not. Most schools apply credit for work and life experience on a pass/fail basis, so your GPA will likely be unaffected.

Sources

  • National Center for Education Statistics (NCES): College Navigator
  • PayScale.com
  • U.S. News & World Report: Best Colleges