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Navigating the Transfer Credit and Prior Learning Assessment Process

As you prepare to enter an online degree program you may be interested in applying for transfer credit. Have you completed previous academic courses? Do you have extensive experience or knowledge about specific topics? If so, you may be able to earn and apply transfer credit toward a new program. Online schools, such as Capella, Walden, and Kaplan, are familiar with the process and many have information posted on their websites to get you started.

An academic curriculum is designed to ensure you meet specific learning outcomes. Each course has been identified and developed to lead you to these outcomes, with guidelines on how your learning will be assessed along the way. When you bring in credit from an outside curriculum, it needs to be carefully reviewed and compared to the equivalent courses in the new program. Faculty and administrators need to make sure that your combined experience will prepare you appropriately to meet the requirements of graduation and beyond.

Typically, admissions officers work with individual academic programs to evaluate any prior course work or learning assessments that you have completed as part of the overall admissions process. It is up to each school or program to develop its own screening process and to make final decisions about incoming transfer credit and how it will be applied to your degree program. You will also need to initiate this process by requesting an evaluation of possible transfer credit.

Academic Coursework

Have you completed prior coursework at another institution? Generally speaking, to be considered for transfer and as part of a new academic program, the courses must have been completed at an accredited program (regional accreditation may be preferred) and with a passing grade. The specific requirements vary by school. Be prepared to provide previous transcripts as well as a copy of the syllabus from each course you would like to transfer.

Prior Learning Assessment

Knowledge and skills you've gained outside of school, perhaps on-the-job, can also be evaluated for equivalent college credit. There are several ways testing can assess your prior learning. Portfolio assessments are also gaining popularity.

  • Standardized Testing: There are a number of existing standardized tests that are recognized by higher education institutions as effective evaluations of a student's knowledge in a particular area. Each test covers a specific subject area and successful scores earn recognition of college-level credit. The College-level Examination Program (CLEP) is just one of these testing programs and offers 33 separate examinations that allow you to "earn credit for knowledge you've acquired through independent study, prior course work, on-the-job training, professional development, cultural pursuits, or internships." Other testing agencies you might want to research include Excelsior College Examinations and the DSST Credit by Exam Program.
  • Challenge Exams: Schools may also develop their own system of Challenge Exams to evaluate your knowledge of a particular area and award credit. Strayer University offers more information about their exams and provides a list of course equivalents. Look for similar programs at other online schools.
  • Portfolios: If you have a lot of work experience in a particular area, you may want to research ways in which this experience can be evaluated and translated into possible college credit. This type of assessment involves the submission of a formal portfolio. Your portfolio might require items such as certificates, personal essays, written descriptions of experience, resume or detailed work history, and transcripts.The school you are applying to may have a portfolio review process in place. Take a look at the information provided by the University of Phoenix and the University of Maryland University College as examples of portfolio requrements. You can also research organizations that provide services to help you prepare your portfolio and assess it for possible transfer credit. According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, these organizations seek to “establish national norms that will make experiential-learning assessment more clear-cut, rigorous, and credible.” is an example.

Additional Training

Some corporate training experiences may be eligible for transfer credit. The National College Credit Recommendation Service and The American Council on Education (ACE) evaluate these types of seminars, workshops and professional development programs for potential academic credit. ACE also evaluates military programs for college credit. 

If you are in the military or are a military family member, The Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Consortium is a group of participating members focused on assisting you with the completion of your education goals. This group assists students with a combination of issues, including transfer credit, testing programs and evaluation of military training for credit. The consortium is made up of 1900 institutions, including several online schools. You can find a list on their website.

Issues and Initiatives

There are several efforts underway to improve the process of transferring credit. The Center for American Progress and The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning are two organizations researching assessment of prior learning. These groups, and others like them, are advocating easier processes and increased opportunities for students.

Articulation agreements are the focus of many discussions about transfer credits. Articulation is a process that allows students to move from one program or school to another as easily as possible. Schools or education systems that have an articulation agreement in place have already developed a specific process and evaluated courses for equivalence.

Some states are working closely with their public higher education institutions to ease the transfer from associate's degree to bachelor's degree. California is working on transfer-specific degrees that are evaluated for transfer and approved within the university system. Florida is working to standardize courses at all public institutions so that courses with equivalent learning outcomes also have the same course number

Online schools and programs are newer to higher education and still working out issues related to articulation and review of transfer credit and prior learning. Check with your school, or the school you are interested in applying to, for more information. Strayer University, for example, advertises that it "maintains Articulation Agreements with more than 170 regionally accredited two-year colleges." An articulation agreement does not have to be in place for your credit to transfer, but it can streamline the process.

Questions to Ask

As you consider the options and opportunity for transfer credit, ask questions of both the admissions advisors at the school you want to attend and any organizations that may be evaluating your experience for credit.

Admissions and Academic Advisors

  • What is the school's policy about transfer and prior leaning credit?
  • What documentation do you need to provide and in what format?
  • Are they familiar with credit earned from your past institutions, testing, and other evaluations?
  • What is the process for submitting your prior credit for review and evaluation?
  • Will your transfer credit be applied to specific courses in your degree program?
  • When will you be able to see any accepted transfer credit listed on your transcript or degree audit?
  • Is there a maximum number of credits that can be transferred into a new program from other institutions and assessments?
  • Will your grades in accepted transfer credits be calculated as part of your GPA in the new program?

Prior Learning and Transfer Credit Grantors

  • What are the costs associated with testing and/or portfolio evaluations?
  • What are the specific services provided and what is the timeline?
  • What types of experiences, knowledge, and skills will be evaluated?
  • How are evaluators selected and trained to assess student portfolios?
  • If prior learning credit is recommended by the evaluators, which specific schools will accept this credit?

The transfer credit evaluation process can be time consuming, so plan ahead and be ready to ask a lot of questions. Consider how transfer credit and prior learning assessments may help you move forward with your career and educational goals.