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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- CLEP Practice: The College Board offers sample questions and study guides to help you ace your CLEP subject exams.
- College Credit for Military Experiences: The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support provides guidelines for active or veteran military members seeking academic credit.
- DSST and CLEP Resource Center: Peterson’s started this Facebook group for students seeking support while preparing for their exams.
- How to Do Well in an AP Class, Your Complete Guide: PrepScholar put together this resource for high school students looking to do well on their AP tests.
- How to Prepare for a DSST Exam in 8 Easy Steps: Thomas Edison State University takes a look at what you can do to earn high marks on DSST exams.
- Portfolio Guidelines for Students: This helpful guide provides guidance and information on what it takes to create a winning academic portfolio for credit.
- Self-Paced Learning, Insider Advice Students Need to Succeed: Learning at your own speed can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your focus and resolve. Rasmussen College provides tips for staying dedicated.
- The Best Ways to Study for CLEPs: This informative YouTube video provides tips and tricks from a student who aced his CLEPs.