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Earning Credits Before College: How to Get Ahead Before Day One

Whether you’re a military veteran applying to nursing school or a single parent with a GED, going to college doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch. Learn how to turn your life experience, military service, and other professional knowledge and skills into actual college credit.

A smiling woman with shoulder-length dark hair, wearing a black cardigan over a striped top, with a softly blurred natural background lit by warm sunlight.
Author: Kathleen Curtis

Cyrus Vanover

Cyrus Vanover is the founder of the Frugal Budgeter and author of "Earn a Debt-Free College Degree," a guide to earning college credit for pennies on the dollar through non-traditional means (CLEP, DSST, AP, etc.). His advice has been featured in Business Insider, Reader's Digest, Fox Business, MSN, Yahoo Finance, and others.

A diverse group of five young adults in a library, smiling and engaging with a digital tablet, some holding books and coffee cups, suggesting a collaborative study session before college.

When you think of a college student, your first thought might be a new high school grad with a dorm key and a meal plan. However, more than 70% of students attending college today are non-traditional, meaning they’re over 24 and have responsibilities outside of school — such as full-time jobs or families of their own. For some of them, going to college may seem like starting from square one, with zero credits under their belt.

But for more and more non-traditional students, that’s just not that case. Across the U.S., dozens of programs are designed specifically to help single parents, military veterans, and late-start learners earn college credit before they ever step into the physical or virtual classroom. So, if you’re ready to start down the road to your new degree, keep reading to learn how you can get a head start by putting your existing expertise and knowledge toward real college credit.

Unconventional Ways to Earn College Credit

There are several ways for non-traditional students to earn credit before college. Whether you want to demonstrate mastery of certain skills that you’ve acquired on the job as a nurse’s assistant or prove your competency in subject you’ve studied in the past, you have multiple options. Here are some of the programs to consider as a nontraditional student in healthcare.

Prior Learning Assessments

Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs), also known as challenge or proficiency exams, provide a popular way for students with knowledge of topics commonly taught in college to earn credit. Plenty of PLA options now exist, some of which we review in the following section.

College Level Exam Programs (CLEP)

Created and administered by The College Board, College Level Exam Programs (CLEP) allows students with existing college-level knowledge the opportunity to demonstrate this knowledge and earn college credits by taking an exam. While individual colleges set scoring requirements for accepting CLEPs as college credit, the American Council on Education recommends that learners earn a score of 50 or higher. The College Board currently provides 34 examinations in areas such as business, composition and literature, world languages, history and social sciences, and science and mathematics. CLEPs are taken on a computer at an approved testing center and students can expect to pay $89 per exam.

How it works in healthcare: Several CLEPs can be used toward healthcare degree requirements, especially those in the science and mathematics topic areas. CLEPs currently available include biology, calculus, chemistry, college algebra, college mathematics, natural sciences, and precalculus. When looking at the veterinary tech program at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, for example, the curriculum requires both a biology and chemistry class. Students who use CLEP towards these programs can test out of 6-8 credits. CLEP can also help with any other general education requirements in healthcare programs, including writing, communications, social sciences, or foreign languages.

DSST Standardized Subject Tests

Originally known as DANTES Standardized Subject Tests, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) created these exams. While initially developed for members of the military, civilians can now use DSST Standardized Subject Tests for college credit. Learners can currently choose from 38 subject areas in topics such as business, humanities, math, physical science, social science, and technology. Learners who pass DSST exams can receive college credit at more than 1,900 colleges and universities. Most DSST exams cost $85 for civilians but are free for active members of the military and veterans.

How it works in healthcare: DSST Standardized Subject Tests can be used towards a variety of healthcare degrees. Students working towards a medical imaging program, for instance, could take exams in areas of health and human development, lifespan development, and computing and information technology that would likely allow them to skip those classes during their program. Of the 38 subject areas available, learners can also bypass general education courses in areas such as English composition, public speaking, or college algebra. Jefferson Community and Technical College provides an example of a radiography curriculum to get a better sense of course expectations.

Excelsior College Credit by Exam

Provided by Excelsior College, the UExcel Credit by Exam program supports students with existing training, military experience, credentials, or certifications the opportunity to earn college credits by exam. The program provides examinations in areas of business, health sciences, liberal arts, nursing, public service, and technology. Learners pay $110 per exam, resulting in three college credits. Excelsior offers testing sites throughout the country, making it easy for examinees to find a location near them. The program also provides test prep services to help students excel on the exam.

How it works in healthcare: Compared to other credit by exam programs, Excelsior College provides a wide range of courses that support healthcare degrees. Students working towards a certified nurse assistant or registered nurse program, for instance, could gain credit by exam in topics such as anatomy and physiology, fundamentals of nursing, lifespan developmental psychology, or maternal and child nursing, among many others. Students who possess healthcare credentials can also gain credits based on existing licenses or certifications.

LearningCounts.org Courses

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning oversees the Learning Counts program, which provides Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) to students looking to earn credit from previous military, work, or life experiences. Learning Counts works with colleges and universities who want to make this non-traditional option available on their campuses. Students save an average of $3,400 in tuition by using Learning Counts and earn an average of nine college credits. The cost of earning these credits is set by individual schools, as is the maximum number of earnable credits. If you decide to go down this path, you will enroll in a portfolio development course, create a portfolio that highlights your existing expertise in a specific course, and submit it before receiving results on whether it counts towards your degree.

How it works in healthcare: Learning Counts’ program can benefit you as a healthcare student if you attend a school that accepts credits by portfolio evaluation via the organization. For instance, if you currently work as an LPN but want to progress your career to that of a registered nurse, you can earn credits for classes taken in your previous education program by developing and submitting portfolios on your existing knowledge. Individual colleges and universities decide which classes can be skipped via portfolio evaluation, making it important that you speak with an advisor to learn what’s possible.

WGU Assessment Degree Programs

Western Governors University (WGU), a fully accredited, online-only institution, provides its competency-based education model for students who want to move through required courses more quickly by demonstrating mastery at their own pace. Because the university charges a flat-rate cost based on time versus a more traditional per-credit fee, students with existing knowledge in their chosen field can graduate more quickly and save on their education. Unlike other options discussed, this model only exists at WGU and cannot be undertaken at other institutions.

How it works in healthcare: Pursuing a WGU competency-based education in a healthcare topic could be a great option if you already hold substantial skills, knowledge, and/or experience in a particular area but want to pursue a degree. For instance, you may have extensively researched topics common to dietetics and nutrition programs and possess a large amount of knowledge about this topic already. If you decide to pursue a nutrition degree, you can put that existing knowledge to work proving your mastery in lower-level classes quickly before progressing to upper-level topics. This approach could save you both time and money.

Advanced Placement Exams (for High School Students)

Advanced Placement (AP) exams are administered by The College Board and help high school students gain college credits prior to graduating. Students take specialized AP classes during their high school years and, if they earn a passing score on the end-of-year exam, can transfer credits for that class to the college or university they attend. The availability of AP courses depends on the high school a learner attends, but most provide a wide array of options. If you plan to use AP credits towards some general education requirements in higher education, speak with the colleges you’re considering to ensure they accept them.

How it works in healthcare: AP credits are a great option for getting some lower-level healthcare degree requirements out the way before ever reaching college. In addition to saving you money, they may also make it possible to graduate earlier. AP credits exist in areas of arts, English, history and social sciences, math and computer sciences, sciences, and world languages and cultures. While many of these may meet general education requirements, AP classes in topics such as biology, chemistry, environmental science, and psychology may count specifically towards certain healthcare degree curricula. Work with both your high school and prospective colleges to learn which ones benefit you the most.

Academic Portfolio

Academic portfolios mimic those discussed earlier (Learning Counts) but are not managed by a specific organization. Instead, individual colleges provide the opportunity for students to take portfolio assessment courses, create examples of existing knowledge or skillsets, and present these for consideration. If approved, learners can bypass classes where they demonstrated mastery. Because individual schools oversee these, it’s important to check with prospective colleges and ask if they provide this service prior to enrolling. Husson University offers one example of what this process looks like, but other schools may manage their offerings differently.

How it works in healthcare: If you possess existing, non-traditional experience in a healthcare topic and feel you could bypass certain courses, an academic portfolio may work for you. Whether you previously worked in a nursing home or served as a volunteer paramedic, these experiences may provide the prior learning needed to qualify for a portfolio evaluation. Because these depend so much on individual schools, it’s vital that you reach out to any school and ask if they offer it. You may very well qualify for a portfolio assessment but if your school doesn’t provide this service, you’ll need to take the classes instead.

Military Training Programs

Active military members and veterans who served over the last decade in the armed forces likely earned American Council on Education (ACE) military credits that can be used towards college course requirements. The type of credits an individual can earn depend on their specific area of work while in the military, but even basic training and boot camp can count for credits in areas of first aid, physical education, and hygiene. ACE published a four-part guide on both course and occupation evaluations to help schools and students alike decipher how their existing experience may translate to college credit. When in doubt, students can work with ACE to get a personalized review and recommendations.

How it works in healthcare: The credits you receive depend on the type of functions you performed while in the military, but several will more than likely transfer to your academic program. Aside from credits gained even during basic training, you may also find that your military role translates well to a healthcare career. If you worked as an information systems technician in the U.S. Navy, for instance, you may qualify for credits in areas of applied networking, network administration, resources management, or strategic planning – all of which can count towards many health informatics management programs. Work with both an ACE representative and an admissions counselor at your school to maximize the number of credit transfers.

Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education has gained traction in recent years based on students’ ability to demonstrate what they know already rather than taking a course. Non-traditional students who possess an existing understanding or skillset can demonstrate mastery of this through exams and papers rather than completing a full course. The WGU model discussed earlier pertains specifically to that school, but several other institutions now offer similar programs for learners looking to fast-track their education. Adult students across the nation have benefited from competency-based education by working at their own pace rather than following a traditional schedule.

How it works in healthcare: Competency-based education can be a great option if you possess some experience and/or knowledge in a healthcare topic and want to demonstrate it rather than taking a class on a subject you already understand. Since individual schools set competency-based education requirements and offerings, picking a school with a large selection of healthcare and healthcare-related topics will be key to maximizing the number of credits you can earn. When in doubt, speak with an admissions counselor or program director to discuss what you know and how you can prove it.

Asynchronous, Online Courses

While colleges and universities also offer asynchronous online courses, the ones discussed in this section refer to options outside higher education settings. Organizations such as Sophia and StraighterLine, offer alternative credits evaluated and recommended by the American Council on Education. The asynchronous nature allows learners to watch lectures, complete assignments, and earn credits at their own pace rather than following along with a traditional schedule. At Sophia, for instance, participants can purchase a membership for $79 per month and begin taking advantage of courses that fit their academic goals.

How it works in healthcare: The organizations listed above provide courses that meet a variety of healthcare degree curriculum requirements, making it easy to complete lower-level courses more quickly than if attending a standard university class. At StraigherLine, for instance, members can choose from health science classes in anatomy and physiology, first aid/CPR, medical terminology, microbiology, personal fitness and wellness, or pharmacology. Because each option provides different classes, make sure you review both degree requirements and class offerings before creating a membership.

Earning College Credit Online

Even before COVID-19 erupted, options for non-traditional students to earn college credits online were on the rise. Several organizations now offer the opportunity to gain credits outside a traditional college setting. We look at some of the most popular and respected options below.

  • Modern StatesThis platform brings together free courses offered from some of the best universities in the country. After completing the class, you can sit for CLEP or AP exams to receive credit at one of 2,900 participating schools. Modern States provides materials, textbooks, and the courses themselves for free. Some of the participating schools include MIT, Boston University, Arizona State University, New York University, and Johns Hopkins. Students can currently choose from 30 different courses, including biology, calculus, chemistry, human growth and development, and introductory psychology.
  • ProperoProvided via Pearson, Propero allows students to earn college credits through self-paced courses. Students can finish these within a couple weeks or spend up to four months meeting all requirements. More than 1,700 colleges currently accept Propero credits from students who receive a score of 70% or higher on the ACE-approved exams. Classes that support healthcare degrees include environmental science, intro to psychology, medical terminology, and statistics. Plenty of other general education courses are also on offer. Students pay a monthly fee to access the platform.
  • EdumaticEdumatic offers regionally accredited courses that transfer to thousands of universities and colleges throughout the U.S. All courses are self-paced, with each credit costing between $100-$400. Available topic areas include general education, business, accounting, criminal justice, healthcare, and psychology. Within healthcare, you can choose from classes in anatomy and physiology, ICD-9/ICD-10 coding, computerized medical office management, healthcare medical terminology, pathophysiology for health information management, and principles of health services administration, among many others. Students typically devote 4-6 hours per day to their studies.
  • ShmoopShmoop brings together content experts, experienced educators, and students of all educational backgrounds to provide engaging lessons aligned to academic standards. The organization currently provides more than 400 courses in high school, AP, and college subjects. Topic areas include math, science, social studies, finance, literature, history, and economics. Relevant courses available include introductory classes to biology, chemistry, and physics alongside food and nutrition, human sexuality, body image, and eating disorders. Students can subscribe for $14.99 per month and receive access to all courses, test readiness programs, 10,000+ videos, 1,000 study guides, and an essay lab.

Advice from the Expert


Cyrus Vanover is the founder of the Frugal Budgeter and author of “Earn a Debt-Free College Degree,” a guide to earning college credit for pennies on the dollar through non-traditional means (CLEP, DSST, AP, etc.). His advice has been featured in Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, Fox Business, MSN, Yahoo Finance, and others.

Why are non-traditional ways of earning college credit beneficial to adult learners?

Challenge exams (e.g., CLEP, DSST, Excelsior, etc.) for college credit represent an incredible way to quickly and affordably test out of many college courses, save thousands in tuition, and possibly graduate early. Many colleges and universities accept challenge exams for college credit, although they usually don’t advertise it.

Challenge exams are an incredible deal. They are currently under $100 each. That means you can earn 30 credit hours — or a year’s worth of college credit — for about $1,000. That’s less money than many spend on a short vacation.

Another benefit of challenge exams is that they are mostly multiple-choice. Study guides are available to get you up to speed on subjects if you are a little rusty. Some students have reviewed study guides and passed these exams with no prior knowledge of the subjects.

What are some common mistakes when navigating the process of earning credits outside the classroom?

One of the most common mistakes with challenge exams is assuming your school accepts them, taking several exams, and then finding out your school does not accept them. Although many schools do accept these exams, it’s important to keep in mind that some don’t. Before taking any challenge exams, find out if your school accepts them, which ones they accept, and the scores you will need to earn college credit.

Where can students go for support or advice when navigating the process?

Since every school will have its own policy on challenge exams for college credit, you should always consult with a student advisor prior to attempting them.

What specific advice do you have for non-traditional students seeking alternative credits?

If you want to maximize your savings and earn a college degree in the shortest amount of time possible, check with different schools before enrolling to see how many challenge exams they accept. It’s common for schools to accept 30 credit hours of challenge exams, but some schools accept up to 60 credits with this strategy. That means you could earn half of a bachelor’s degree for about $2,000 and finish the remainder in about two years.

Additional Resources