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5 alternative ways to get college credits

Alternative Ways to Earn College Credits

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Bronson Ledbetter, MBA, Vice President, Student Services and Financial Operations

Bronson Ledbetter, MBA, Vice President, Student Services and Financial Operations

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Alternative ways to earn college credit

It's no secret that higher education is an investment of time and money. Fortunately, there are alternative ways to earn college credits in the form of alternative and transfer credits, prior learning assessment and competency-based education.

These options often build on what you already know to ensure that you have a well-rounded education by the time you graduate. And while these terms may sound like a foreign language, they’re key players that can help save you time and money during your academic journey.

Read on to find out what kind of previous educational experiences – and even life experiences – can be applied toward a degree to help fast-track your education.

Alternative credits

Alternative credits allow students to earn college credit without having to sit in a traditional classroom. The best part? Students can apply alternative credits to their degree program in a variety of ways. And as with PLA, it's best to start the process of earning alternative credits at the beginning of your program.

Devin Andrews, vice president of admissions and evaluation at University of Phoenix, says a popular approach is standardized testing. This is done through national testing programs such as CLEP, DSST and AP, which students can prepare for and take to demonstrate their skills of specific subjects and earn alternative credit.

Additionally, alternative credit providers, such as, have become popular as well, according to Andrews. These providers offer short, self-paced curriculum with built-in assessments, often through a subscription model. Instead of testing, students can complete multiple courses to earn alternative credits.

Transfer credits

Transfer credits are the course credit you’ve earned at another qualified institution of higher learning. This is most commonly done after a student takes courses at a two-year community college and enrolls in a four-year university. If accepted, a student might be able to apply already-earned credits to their degree by transferring them from one institution to another.

After receiving a student's academic transcript and request to transfer credits, an institution determines how to best apply those credits based on its academic policies. These transfer credit agreements can help students transition from an associate degree to a bachelor’s degree, for instance.

According to Andrews, some of the most common transfer credits students apply tend to be general education.

"It is most common for students to transfer general education coursework in social sciences, science and technology. English composition and communication arts are common too," she said. "This makes sense. Courses in these areas tend to be common within the first year or two of programs at community colleges and universities."

Credit for work and life experience

You may be wondering if your work and life experience can also count toward college credit. The short answer is yes.

For instance, at University of Phoenix (UOPX) students can participate in Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) to find out if the learning they've gained from work and life can be applied as college credits toward their degree program. These experiences may include previous professional certificates, on-the-job training and even raising a child.

Andrews says, “PLA is a risk-free process for students, as UOPX does not charge any fees to have prior learning evaluated.” She continues, “We believe in removing barriers for our students and giving them the credit they deserve.”

PLA can involve journaling about your experience, which some people may find intimidating. But the payoff can make it worth it. On average, 55% of UOPX students who took advantage of the program were awarded credits. Plus, for every 3 credits you earn through PLA you can save almost $1,200 and graduate 5 weeks faster!

However, Andrews reminds students that not every institution offers PLA as a way to earn college credits. And when they do, there's often a fee attached. She adds, “If a student has a lot of work or life experience, they should consider whether PLA is available and how much it will cost when enrolling in an institution.”

If you do choose to apply for PLA, do it at the beginning of your college journey. That way, you can potentially bypass some of the general education courses you need to graduate.

How college transfer credits work

Not all coursework in which you received a passing grade can count toward every university or every university’s degree program. Before going through the process, you should look closely at your new school’s current transfer policies (these can include application requirements) as well as which courses your new school offers. It’s worth making sure that your past coursework and your current educational goals align.

Once you’ve determined that your current educational institution might accept transfer credits for your previous coursework, you’ll want to contact the school. Inform the admissions office of your situation. Ask them for help to determine which, if any, previous credits can apply toward your degree program.

Afterward, you may need to request transcripts from any and all previous institutions of higher learning that you’ve attended. Keep in touch with your current or future school during the process. They will make sure the transferring of past coursework for credit is proceeding smoothly.

Will my college credits transfer?

Ultimately, the final word on whether your college credits can be applied toward your degree goes to your institution.

The school will determine if credit can be awarded by evaluating the provided documentation and other related sources. It might also base its decision on recommendations from The American Council for Education (ACE) and/or the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS).

Keep in mind that your institution could have a limit to the number of credits that can be transferred. For example, at UOPX, students can apply up to 75% of their credits to an undergraduate program, which includes any combination of PLA, alternative credits and transfer credits.

How to earn a degree in under a year

All of the above alternative credits options can help students save time and money toward their education. Competency-based education degree (CBE) is another possible option. If you already work in a professional setting, enjoy learning independently and have strong organizational and time management skills, then CBE might be a viable option for you.

In a CBE program, each credit is directly tied to a measurable skill. Students can demonstrate competency in a subject area where they have experience, allowing them to spend more time on the areas that require additional focus. This can help to save both time and money in the long run.

In fact, according to a report by American Institutes for Research, CBE proponents argue that because these programs emphasize learning and mastery of competencies, rather than traditional seat time, this improves quality, access and cost of a student’s education.

Andrews agrees, adding that the University’s CBE programs allow students to complete their education in less than 12 months for under $11,000. That means that in under a year you could gain the career skills you need to help improve your job performance.

Fixed-rate and reduced rate tuition

Aside from PLA, alternative credits, transfer credits and CBE programs, you might also consider fixed-rate and reduced rate tuition options to further increase your savings.

On average, Andrews shares, UOPX undergraduate students can save on average $11,000 and one year off their degree by combining alternative ways to earn college credits. In other words, maximizing the available methods can help you save more time and money toward your education.

  • Fixed-rate tuition

fixed tuition rate locks in your tuition cost for your entire program, which can help you avoid costly financial surprises. And since the cost of education continues to rise every year, a fixed tuition rate can make a big difference. However, not every school offers a fixed tuition rate, so make sure to check with your institution's financial department.

  • Reduced rate tuition

Reduced tuition rates are based on different qualifying factors. At UOPX, associate degree graduates are eligible for a reduced tuition rate at the University, which can be combined with transfer credits earned from their associate degree.

"It is always up to the receiving institution whether to accept transfer credit from another institution. Each institution establishes policies that align with its mission, accreditation and other applicable standards," Andrews said. "Increasingly, the transfer and award of credit is seen as an equity issue. Organizations like AACRAO and ACE call for inclusive policies that give students credit for their prior learning and help students complete credentials without unnecessary duplication of coursework."

Therefore, whether you transfer three credits or 30, exploring your options at your chosen university can pay off in both time and money.

Explore your transfer credit options

If you’ve earned college credits, chances are you are eligible to apply them toward a degree program. At University of Phoenix, we work with a number of accredited colleges and universities to establish hundreds of transfer agreements toward our bachelor’s degrees. To discover how many of your credits can be applied at the University, explore our transfer guide to find out what is available to you.

Our Prior Learning Assessment can help you get credit for what you know by turning on-the-job training, industry certifications, military service and life experience into potential credits. So, what are you waiting for? Make earning a college degree more affordable by getting creative with how you combine alternative ways to earn college credits.

Frequently asked questions about transfer credits

Do you still have questions about transfer credits? You’re not alone. Check out these FAQs!

1. Do college transfer credits and course grades count against your future or current GPA?

Typically, the grade you receive in a completed college course will not count against your GPA.

2. What should I know if I’m transferring from a foreign school to a U.S. college or university?

Transfer credits for international students are possible at many American institutions, both on-campus and online. Online universities offer the added advantage of enabling you to earn your degree without having to relocate overseas.

3. What courses and grades are typically eligible to become transfer credits?

According to, "Generally, college-level courses completed at regionally accredited institutions will transfer, provided that a grade of at least ‘C’ (2.0) is earned and the course is similar in content and scope to work offered at your targeted college or university who will assess your academic history."

Some schools accept all passing grades. However, the higher your grade, the more likely your coursework will be accepted for transfer credits.

4. Do pass/fail courses count for transfers?

Yes, in most instances, you can turn passing grades in completed courses into transfer credits at other institutions. Contact your future school for help determining which courses and grades will count toward your degree under its policy.

5. How many credits can I transfer?

The maximum number of credits you can transfer depends on the school. It can be up to 75 credits at University of Phoenix.

"Adult learners with a high number of credits on their transcript may be closer to meeting degree requirements than they think," says U.S. News & World Report. Check with your school to see how many more courses you actually need.

Headshot of Laurie Davies


A journalist-turned-marketer, Laurie Davies has been writing since her high school advanced composition teacher told her she broke too many rules. She has worked with University of Phoenix since 2017, and currently splits her time between blogging and serving as lead writer on the University’s Academic Annual Report. Previously, she has written marketing content for MADD, Kaiser Permanente, Massage Envy, UPS, and other national brands. She lives in the Phoenix area with her husband and son, who is the best story she’s ever written. 

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