The Path to Getting College Credits Outside the Classroom

Think you have to attend college classes to get college credit? While that may be true in many cases, there are also a wide range of other ways that students can earn college credits, many of which don’t involve shelling out for the full cost of a college course. In a time when high tuition is making college a more difficult financial decision and many are looking to boost skills and qualifications without spending months away from the working world, taking advantage of these alternative routes to getting college credit can be a savvy move for students.

Luckily, the number of options for credit is growing rapidly and it’s increasingly easy to get college credits without actually enrolling in college, so much so that more students than ever may find themselves pursuing new ways to make college more flexible and less time-consuming and expensive. Despite these changes, many students may still not know where to look for opportunities and how to get their own credits approved. It’s actually not as hard as you think and there are options that can suit everyone, from high school students to working professionals.

The Traditional Route: CLEP and AP

One of the most common ways for students to get college credit outside of college courses is through taking either AP or CLEP exams. Earning a high score on either will suffice to get students credit at most colleges in the U.S., often making it possible to test out of basic courses and some general education requirements.

Generally speaking, CELP and AP are accepted at most colleges for at least some degree of credit. Of course, that’s not true across the board. Just last year Dartmouth decided to stop giving credit for AP exams in certain subjects starting in 2018  and some colleges only accept a narrow range of CLEP exams for college credit. Any student looking to use either of these methods to earn college credit should check with administrators before investing in the tests to make sure the credits will count.

So what are CLEP and AP exams?



What It Is: CLEP stands for College Level Examination Program. CLEP tests are used to assess knowledge in several subject areas including accounting, biology, history, business law, management, marketing, literature, psychology, economics, chemistry, and more. There are currently 33 different CLEP exams but that number could change as exams are added or removed.

Why Take It: CLEP tests are useful for students who have gained a strong base of knowledge on a subject outside of the classroom, either through independent study, work, volunteering, or cultural interaction. They can help students to get college credit in these areas and to bypass basic coursework. CLEP differs from AP in that students don’t need to have taken any specific coursework beforehand; they just need an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter. Even better, students can use CLEP credits at more than 2,900 colleges and universities nationwide (though it is critical to remember that not all schools accept every CLEP exam offered for credit).

How to Take It: Students must sign up in advance to take the CLEP exam at one of more than 1,500 testing centers nationwide. The tests are about 90 minutes long and cost anywhere from $80 to $100 to take, though additional fees may apply to some subjects. In order to qualify for college credit, most colleges require a score of at least 50 but some may have higher standards so it is important to research your school’s requirements beforehand. On some tests, the score a student earns will determine how much credit he or she will be granted, with higher scores earning more credit hours.


AP Exam


What It Is: AP stands for Advanced Placement. AP exams are taken at the end of Advanced Placement courses to assess student knowledge of the subject. There are currently 34 AP exams available in a diverse range of topics that include everything from art history to calculus to Russian language and culture.

Why Take It: AP courses are usually offered only to high school students, so they are a great option for college-bound students who are looking to earn college credits in advance of college enrollment. Students who score high enough on the exam will be able to earn college credit or have general education requirements waived at their future college.

How to Take It: AP exams are given at the end of an AP course at the request of the student, as it is possible to take an AP course without taking the exam. The amount of credit a student can get for the exam will be based on his or her score, which is given on a scale of 1-5. Most schools require at least a 3 to grant any credit or for course prerequisites to be waived. Students can sign up for AP exams in their AP courses or online. Each exam costs $89 and exams for all subjects are given in the first two weeks of May.


If you’re ready to take CLEP or AP exams and start working your way towards cheaper college credits, there are a lot of smart ways you can prepare for the tests. One of the best ways to get ready for CLEP and AP exams is to head to the College Board’s website to take practice exams and questions. These will give you a better idea of what to expect on test day and will ensure that you’re studying the right topics for their exams. Some students may want to pick up additional study books and materials, which are available from a wide range of retailers.

Overall, studying for these exams is no different than studying for any other big exam. Students need to start early, cut out distractions, and make sure to practice under test-like conditions to ensure they’re ready to earn those college credits by acing the exam.

Massive Open Online Courses: A New Path to College Credit

MOOCs are one of the hottest trends in higher education today, but until recently students were only able to take them for their own personal development, not to work towards a degree. While most MOOCs still won’t earn you college credit, attitudes are changing.

The American Council on Education Endorses Select MOOC Courses for College Credit

In Feb. 2013, the American Council on Education (ACE) endorsed five MOOC courses for credit, all offered through Coursera and coming from big name schools like Duke, the University of California-Irvine, and the University of Pennsylvania. While this is a major step forward, endorsement from the ACE doesn’t mean that colleges have to accept these MOOCs for credit. It’s simply a recommendation, indicating to college presidents and other administrators that the courses meet a certain standard of quality. How individual colleges choose to handle MOOCs for credit will vary, but the ACE recommendations do mark a major shift in attitudes about MOOCs, giving them much more legitimacy as ways to learn college-level material.

The ACE approved courses aren’t the only options for students looking to receive credit for their MOOCs, however. There are a number of other opportunities out there and several more in the works that may make MOOCs an incredibly cheap and viable option for students who need college credit but don’t have the time or money to enroll in traditional courses.

Schools Partner with MOOCs to Offer College Courses for Credit

San Jose State University has partnered with Udacity to offer three math MOOCs that can be used for credit at the school. While the courses themselves operate as traditional MOOCs (they’re free of charge), San Jose students can pay a fee of $150 to use the courses as math credits as the school. Other schools, like Antioch University, are taking a similar path, with the school partnering with Coursera to offer several courses for credit as part of a bachelor’s degree program.

A number of other schools have entered into an agreement with Academic Partnerships to offer degree programs that begin with an introductory course administered as a MOOC (essentially taking an online course from the host institution and making it open and free to all). Students can take this course for free, with administrators hoping that they are then motivated to take additional courses at a cost through the schools. Among the schools participating in the MOOC2Degree program are Cleveland State, Florida International, Lamar and Utah State Universities, and the Universities of Cincinnati, Texas at Arlington, and West Florida.

More widely, however, many schools are working to create systems that allow them to better assess how to give students credit for the MOOCs they take.  At Empire State College, administrators are developing assessments in conjunction with the Lumina Foundation to figure out how to quantify college learning and apply it to a set of free online courses from the Saylor Foundation. Georgia State is developing policies that would give credit to students who are seeking it for the MOOCs they’ve taken much in the same way they grant credit for AP exams or transfer credits.  Even more stunning, a proposed bill in California seeks to create an approved list of MOOCs that cover introductory or basic college material that all public colleges would be required to accept for credit.

Student Assessment Poses Hurdle for College Credit through MOOCs

Determining how to assess MOOCs is one of the biggest obstacles to their wider acceptance for college credit, says City University of Seattle provost Steven Olswang. Right now, they’re more often built into competency-based education programs, but most schools haven’t yet found a satisfactory way to certify MOOCs as standalone courses. That could be changing, however, as many are working hard to develop their own systems of assessment for MOOCs.

While many thought MOOCs might be a passing fad, the growing potential for students to earn college credits for taking them make give them some staying power. Any student considering heading back to college should be sure to check out their options for getting credit for MOOCs or other open online courses. They’re not accepted everywhere just yet, but with radical changes in an incredibly short amount of time — the first large-scale MOOC launched in 2011 — the options for using MOOCs for credit are sure to expand rapidly over the coming year and beyond.

Work and Life Experience as College Credit

Many students might be aware that they can earn credit through exams or even increasingly through MOOCs, but many more probably don’t realize that their life experience, whether through work, the military, volunteering, or other accomplishments, can count towards a college education, too.

Over the past decade, a growing number of schools have begun to accept life or work experience for credit. This means that students can translate expertise they’ve honed outside of school into college credits that can be used towards a degree program in a field of a student’s choice.

Schools with Non-Traditional Students are More Likely to Offer Credits for Experience

Life and work experience credits aren’t popping up at every college. Schools that focus on older, non-traditional students tend to offer them more readily than other higher educational institutions, perhaps because they appeal directly to their student body. The City University of Seattle is one such institution, with most students coming in from the military or returning to school mid-career. There, students can get credit for their life and work experiences in a variety of ways. Former military personnel can take advantage of a program called DANTES, a partnership between the U.S. military and the ACE.  Through this, students can directly transfer their military training into credit for courses. Olswang says that it’s not uncommon for military specialists to come into school with a great deal of experience in math or science, adding up to the equivalent of three or four math or science courses.

Specialized Training can Transfer into College Credit through ACE-Certified Courses

Another avenue for translating work experience into college credit exists through ACE-certified courses. This is often a great option for those who have done specialized training for their employers and want to get college credit for the material they already know. For example, the City University has a partnership with Starbucks.

“Starbucks’ internal training programs are ACE approved, often in things like machine maintenance or management, so students who work for Starbucks can get college credit for the internal training they’re already doing to help them perform better within their jobs,” says Olswang. Those working in other fields where specialized training might be required, like IT or accounting, may also find opportunities to take advantage of this program.

How ‘Experience Portfolios’ can Translate to College Credit

It’s not just on-the-job training that can earn students college credit, however. Many colleges have programs that allow students to use any kind of work, volunteer, or even independent study to count towards their degrees. At City University, this credit is earned by putting together a portfolio of work that demonstrates that students already have the knowledge they would have gained in a course. Similar programs exist at many colleges nationwide, including Illinois Governor’s State University, Argosy University, the University of Maryland, and more than 40 other schools nationwide. According to Olswang, students can earn up to a year’s worth of college credit under current accreditation rules, providing a substantial savings, both in time and money.

Olswang says that many students aren’t even aware of the options they have for earning credit in these ways, but that they tend to be better advised on how to use these systems at schools that cater to adult students. “Programs like these are very popular and are getting to be more popular,” he says. “Students are always looking to find ways to save money and they’d rather pay a small service fee for an exam or prior learning evaluation than for an entire college course.”

He cautions students, however, that alternative methods for getting college credits aren’t easy. “It’s a rigorous process. It’s not a giveaway. Students have to be able to prove their learning outcomes. They can get to these outcomes in many different ways and through many experiences, but they have to meet the same standards as all other students.”

Enrolling in and completing college courses is the most common and most obvious way to earn college credit, but it’s certainly not the only option. With tuition on the rise and the student body shifting towards the non-traditional, the number of ways that students can work towards college credit is rapidly expanding and if you’re looking for a cheaper, sometimes quicker way to work your way towards a degree, don’t hesitate to investigate your options. You may just find you can take care of semester’s worth of courses by taking advantage of some alternative ways to earn college credits, getting you to where you want to be faster and with a whole lot less money on the line.

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