Guide to Earning Credit Before College

If you’ve already got some work experience behind you, chances are you’ve learned college-level skills on-the-job and through training you’ve completed along the way. You may also have served in the military or completed extensive volunteer service that led to skill development. High school students can also get a jumpstart on earning college-level credit through a variety of specialized programs.

Assessment of prior learning has become increasingly popular for students interested in reducing the time to degree or certificate completion, as well as paying for fewer courses overall. Translating your existing knowledge and skills into academic credit can take place through multiple assessment options, including transcript services, testing, portfolio development, and competency-based learning.

Each method has its own benefits and challenges, as well as costs and eligibility requirements. And not all colleges and universities accept all forms of academic credit. This guide presents programs and services you may want to research as part of your own college and career planning efforts.

Transcript Service

If you have already completed work-related training or testing through your employer or another organization, you may be eligible to receive academic credit. Transcript services evaluate training events and tests, and make recommendations for the equivalent academic credit.


ACE CREDIT is a service of the American Council on Education (ACE), which has been working since the 1970’s to assist students interested in earning credit for training completed outside of a traditional academic institution. This organization evaluates a wide range of learning options from corporate training to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Use ACE’s National Guide to College Credit for Workplace Training to search for courses and exams offered by companies, organizations, as well as the government and military. Those listed have been reviewed and recommended as academic credit equivalents at the vocational certificate, lower-level undergraduate, higher-level undergraduate, or graduate level.

  • Eligibility: If you’ve already completed one of the courses or exams that ACE has evaluated and recommended for credit, you can request a transcript online.
  • Subjects: A wide range of topics is included in the ACE catalog. Search the National Guide by organization, course or exam title, or keyword (using the “description” option).
  • Getting started: If you would like to receive credit for a course you’ve completed, begin the process by setting up a user account in the ACE Registry and Transcript System.
  • Cost: Initial account set up, which includes a transcript, is $40. Additional transcript requests are $15 each. Check with ACE for the latest pricing.
  • Transfer credit: Include your ACE transcript as part of your admissions application, or work with your academic advisor to find out about the possibilities for transfer credit if you are already enrolled.

Keep in mind that the ACE makes credit recommendations. Every college and university determines what kinds of assessments and transfer credits it will accept towards a degree program, often on a case-by-case basis, after reviewing the transcripts you submit for consideration.

Testing Options

You can earn academic credit for your knowledge in specific subject areas through multiple testing services.


The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), is a service of the College Board that “tests mastery of college-level material acquired in a variety of ways – through general academic instruction, significant independent study, or extracurricular work.”

  • Eligibility: Anyone can register for and take CLEP exams, though most who do are specifically interested in earning academic credit for college. This program is popular with home-schooled and high school students, military service members, and adult learners interested in continuing their education.
  • Subjects: There are currently 33 exams available and categorized in five traditional academic subject areas: History and Social Sciences, Composition and Literature, Science and Mathematics, Business, and World Languages.
  • Getting started: Register for an account and schedule a day to take your selected test(s) at a center in your local area. Sample test questions and study materials are available online to help you prepare.
  • Cost: Each exam costs $80 to take, and there are additional administrative fees that vary by testing center.
  • Transfer credit: By successfully passing a CLEP exam you can receive 3 to 12 academic credits; it is up to each college to decide how much credit you can earn, as well as how many total CLEP credits will be accepted toward degree requirements.

Almost 3,000 colleges and universities currently accept CLEP exam credits. Check with the schools you are applying to, or with your academic advisor if already enrolled, to find out what credit will be allowed, and how it may be applied to a degree plan (e.g., specific course equivalents, required vs. elective courses).


The DSST testing program has evolved over the past 40 years, beginning as a way for military service members to get academic credit for their training. Formerly known as “DANTES tests,” DSST exams are now open to civilians, as well as the military, as a way to assess and document the knowledge you’ve gained outside of school.

  • Eligibility: Anyone can register for and take a DSST exam.
  • Subjects: DSST offers 38 exams in six categories: Business, Humanities, Math, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, and Technology.
  • Getting started: Select the test subject(s) that best match your current abilities and locate a testing center near you. Many are on college campuses and some also offer an Internet testing option. Online practice exams and other study materials are available for a fee.
  • Cost: Each exam costs $80 to take, and there may be additional “sitting fees” that vary by testing center.
  • Transfer credit: Successful completion results in 3 academic credits at the undergraduate level, and all are recommended for credit through the ACE CREDIT service mentioned previously.

More than 1,900 colleges and universities now accept DSST exam credit. Check with your school before you sit for the DSST tests to make sure that these credits will count toward your program requirements.

UExcel and Excelsior College Examinations

Excelsior College is a regionally accredited online school with a mission to offer flexible paths for lifelong learners to achieve their academic goals. This institution also offers proficiency tests, known as Excelsior College Examinations or UExcel exams that allow students to earn college-level credit for their past experience.

  • Eligibility: Although they are especially relevant to students enrolled in Excelsior College programs, anyone can register for and take UExcel exams. Check the list of other schools that recognize Excelsior exam credit, and talk with your admissions or academic advisors before you register for these tests.
  • Subjects: More than 40 subject tests are available in the categories of Business, Humanities, Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Nursing, and Social Sciences and History.
  • Getting started: After identifying the exam(s) you want to take, create a MyExcelsior account, register for the exam online, then schedule your exam at one of the available testing centers. A variety of study materials are recommended, ranging from free open courseware to fee-based guided learning packages and practice exams.
  • Cost: Exam fees vary depending on the test and range from $95 to several hundred dollars. There is also a separate $12 transcript request fee.
  • Transfer credit: Most exams result in 3 earned academic credits at the undergraduate level, and all are recommended for credit through the ACE CREDIT service. Excelsior’s nursing exams are the only nursing exams approved for credit by ACE.

Note that the name of these exams is transitioning from “Excelsior College Examinations” (ECEs) to “UExcel” exams, except for the nursing theory exams required in Excelsior’s own nursing programs.

Learning Portfolios

Portfolios are used to document your prior experience and learning from multiple contexts, which might include civilian and military employment, corporate training, volunteering, and even open learning options (e.g., MOOCs). Thorough development is important, so expert reviewers can effectively recommend equivalent academic credit.

A service of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), LearningCounts is a portfolio-based assessment of your past experiences that is reviewed by subject area experts and evaluated for equivalent academic credit. LearningCounts defines a portfolio as “a set of documents that a student develops to demonstrate learning acquired outside the college classroom.”

  • Eligibility: Anyone can develop a learning portfolio for credit assessment by LearningCounts experts.
  • Subjects: The subjects in which you can earn college credit are based on your experience. For example, someone with work experience as an accounting clerk might earn credit in areas such as accounting, finance, and business. Portfolios are developed through your choice of self-paced or instructor-led courses, focusing on topics relevant to your work and learning history.
  • Getting started: The College Credit Predictor is a quick survey that allows you to identify your current areas of expertise. Answer this survey and enter your contact information to receive a “personalized action plan,” then speak with a Credit Specialist to find out more about the options available. If LearningCounts is a good fit for you, register for an online course to guide you through the portfolio development process using Learning Counts software.
  • Cost: The self-paced, “do it yourself” course option is $129, and the instructor-led six-week course option is $895. (Review a side-by-side comparison of these courses and sample modules on the LearningCounts website.) Portfolio evaluation rates are $125 per portfolio.
  • Transfer credit: Each portfolio can result in 3 lower- or higher-level undergraduate academic credits and is “matched to one college course.” You can also earn 3 credits through completion of the instructor-led portfolio class. If your school already partners with LearningCounts, your credit recommendations are submitted directly to the Registrar’s Office. If you attend or plan to attend another institution, you can request a transcript of your credit recommendations for a fee.

Developing a learning portfolio for evaluation involves time and expense. LearningCounts expects that students will spend approximately 10-15 hours working on the course each week. Use the Credit Predictor, talk with LearningCounts Credit Specialists, and consult with your institution’s advisors to find out if this format for prior learning assessment is right for you and your program.

Competency-based Learning

Your knowledge and skill can be measured in a number of ways that essentially prove that you have achieved a level of mastery. Competency-based programs seek to evaluate your mastery in academic subject areas and award you with the equivalent credit.

Western Governors University Assessment

Western Governors University (WGU) is a regionally accredited, nonprofit, online university where you can “earn a degree based on what you’ve learned, not how long you’ve spent in the classroom.” This competency-based approach includes assessment of your skills and knowledge through a series of exams, projects, and papers.

  • Eligibility: To apply for undergraduate-level work, you must be at least 16 years of age and have earned a GED or high school diploma. Graduate school applicants must have already earned a bachelor’s degree. There are additional application requirements for specific programs.
  • Subjects: WGU students work toward degree completion through “courses of study” that include resources, mentoring, support services, and a formal plan to establish your competency and prepare you for the program’s assessments. Multiple bachelor’s and master’s degrees are offered through WGU’s Teachers College, College of Business, College of Information Technology, and College of Health Professions.
  • Getting started: After applying for admission, you will take the WGU Collegiate Readiness Assessment to make sure you are prepared for college-level learning. If accepted as a student, you’ll then work with an Enrollment Counselor to plan your start date, and a Student Mentor to guide you through your degree plan and assessments during six-month terms.
  • Cost: There is an application fee of $65. Tuition is charged at a flat rate of $2,890 per six-month term.
  • Transfer credit: Unlike the prior learning assessments already presented in this guide, WGU’s assessments are designed to be applied toward WGU degrees. If you want to transfer credits you’ve earned at WGU to another institution, you can request an official transcript that includes the subject domains that you completed while at WGU and recommended credit equivalencies.

As with many formats of online learning, students pursuing a competency-based education must have a high level of commitment and self-discipline to reach their goals. WGU provides a “good fit quiz” to help you determine if the competency assessment approach is right for you.

College Credit for High School Students

Many high school students choose to enroll in programs or extra course work that will be accepted as college-level credit after they graduate. If you are a high school student interested in advanced testing and course options, research both the availability in your state and the admissions requirements of the college(s) you plan to attend.

State Programs

State-level departments of education are active in helping students find the opportunities they need to succeed, including a host of “dual credit” and “concurrent enrollment” options with local career and technical schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions.

The State of Washington’s Running Start program and Minnesota’s Ready, Set, Go MN are just two examples of initiatives coordinated among multiple school districts and higher education institutions to allow high school students to earn both high school and college-level credit simultaneously. Here a quick look at what you can expect to find in your state:

  • Eligibility: Eligibility varies by state and institution, but many schools offer dual and concurrent credit for 11th and 12th graders. You may have to formally apply to the college or university offering the courses and be admitted before you can enroll.
  • Subjects: Many course titles are available, but there may be some restrictions depending on the program and institution. Check with your school to find out if there are limitations or specific guidelines related to the course catalog, total number of credits, and/or windows for enrollment and completion. Online classes may also be an option.
  • Getting started: Check with your school and state board of education for details about time frames, deadlines, and how to enroll. Make sure you have a clear understanding of what you will be required to do, as well as how the courses will be applied to your high school graduation requirements and/or future college goals.
  • Cost: The costs of enrolling vary by state and institution. You may find tuition funding available through your school or district, as well as scholarship and financial assistance opportunities. You may also encounter additional fees for things like lab supplies and textbooks.
  • Transfer credit: If you are enrolled in a course that counts toward high school graduation requirements it should appear on your high school transcript. If you earn credit through a course offered by a college, that institution will also be able to issue a transcript that shows course completion. It may be your responsibility to not only track your own progress, but also request transcripts and communicate your status between schools.

Not all states have created formal initiatives for dual or concurrent enrollment, but individual colleges and universities often have their own programs for high school students. Browse the links listed below for examples of both state programs and institutional options, and check with your school for more details about what may be available.

Alabama Montana
Alaska Nebraska
Arizona Nevada
Arkansas New Hampshire
California New Jersey
Colorado New Mexico
Connecticut New York
Delaware North Carolina
Florida North Dakota
Georgia Ohio
Hawaii Oklahoma
Idaho Oregon
Illinois Pennsylvania
Indiana Rhode Island
Iowa South Carolina
Kansas South Dakota
Kentucky Tennessee
Louisiana Texas
Maine Utah
Maryland Vermont
Massachusetts Virginia
Michigan Washington
Minnesota West Virginia
Mississippi Wisconsin
Missouri Wyoming

Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are administered by the College Board and provide another opportunity for high school students to earn college-level academic credit.

  • Eligibility: AP courses and exams are generally offered within high schools, but you don’t have to take the course to sit for an exam and potentially earn credit. Schools determine eligibility requirements, which may include a certain GPA level or completion of prerequisite courses.
  • Subjects: There are currently 34 AP course titles organized in six categories: Arts, English, History and Social Science, Math and Computer Science, Sciences, and World Languages and Cultures.
  • Getting started: Check with your school’s counselors to find out which topics are available at your school. Online options may be possible if you want to take an AP course that isn’t offered locally. Counselors can also help you get enrolled in the courses and register for the exams.
  • Cost: There is a fee of $89 for each exam taken in the U.S. The cost is higher for courses and exams completed at locations outside the U.S. There are also additional fees for “late testing options,” and your school may add an administrative fee to the costs. Financial assistance is sometimes available, so be sure to check with your teacher.
  • Transfer credit: After successfully completing an AP course and/or AP exam, you may earn credit based on your score. At your request, these scores can be sent by the College Board to the colleges you are interested in attending as part of your application materials. Each institution decides if it will accept AP scores for credit, as well as how much credit the scores will be awarded.

International Baccalaureate

International Baccalaureate (IB) is a nonprofit foundation that works with more than 3,500 schools across the globe with a “mission to create a better world through education.” Four different programs are offered including a high school.

  • Eligibility: Each school determines eligibility for IB courses and programs. You may be required to complete an application before being admitted.
  • Subjects: Courses are offered in six subject groups: Language and Literature, Language Acquisition, Individuals and Societies, Sciences, Mathematics, and The Arts. IB students complete structured course work and exams, as well as interdisciplinary assignments; capstone “creativity, action, and service” projects; and original research.
  • Getting started: Schools may choose to offer IB courses or full programs to students. If you are interested in enrolling, check with your counselors and teachers to find out what is available, including online courses.
  • Cost: Schools pay annual fees for each IB program they teach, and may or may not charge students related fees. Students also have costs related to registration and exams. The IB organization estimates a total cost of “about $600 per full IB Diploma.”
  • Transfer credit: Exams are administered in May and November. Similar to the AP structure, IB courses and exam results are evaluated for academic credit by individual institutions as part of a prospective student’s application materials.