More and more working adults who started college but never finished are seeking different ways to earn their bachelor’s degrees. For good reason—study after study shows that a college degree offers the promise of a higher-paying job, upward mobility, and significantly higher lifetime earnings.
Not surprisingly, many people are interested in discovering degree paths that accelerate completion and reduce costs. Analysis of Google search engine queries reveals that a sizable number of people are researching “life-experience degrees.” Programs that offer these degrees promise to translate a person’s life or work experience into credit without the workload of a typical college program. But as you will soon see, this option should be regarded with caution.
The good news is that another option—competency-based education—allows returning adult learners to legitimately leverage life and work experience to accelerate time to graduation and save money at the same time.
Let’s take a look at both options in detail.
Life-Experience Degrees: Look Before You Leap
Programs that offer life-experience degrees claim that a student can earn credit for jobs or prior learning they have completed—in other words, credit based on previous life experience. No exams. No extra schooling.
The prospect of earning credit based on previous life or work experience, without testing or additional work, is attractive. In the proper educational model, one can leverage life experience to earn legitimate credits. However, experts advise caution when considering this route for a full degree. Here’s why:
- Association with diploma mills. The term “diploma mill” is sometimes associated with life-experience degrees. Is that fair? Check out how the U.S. Department of Education (DoED) defines a diploma mill:A) An institution that “offers, for a fee, degrees, diplomas, or certificates” but requires “little or no education or coursework to obtain such degree, diploma, or certificate.”ANDB) “lacks accreditation by an accrediting agency or association that is recognized as an accrediting agency or association of institutions of higher education.”The DoED goes on to say that one of the major red flags of a diploma mill university is one that places “unrealistic emphasis on offering college credits for lifetime or real world experience.”
- The matter of accreditation. Accreditation is a method of institutional review to determine the legitimacy of a college institution, and it’s at the heart of any valuable college degree.The DoED states, “Although many legitimate institutions give academic credit for life and work experiences, beware of institutions that offer college credit and degrees based on life experience, with little or no documentation of prior learning.”Our advice? Don’t leave it up to chance. To determine if a university has legitimate accreditation, check out the DOE-sponsored Institution Accreditation database.
- Domain names that deceive. According to counterfeitdegrees.com, many universities offering full life-experience degrees try to fool people into believing they are based in, or have campuses in, America.The site warns that once you look past the domain name, “addresses in places like Liberia, the Virgin Islands, and the Middle East are common and expose the illusions for what they are: virtual houses of cards.”
Something else to look for: How does the domain name end? Three tiny letters can tell you a lot. Current DoED requirements allow only colleges that are accredited by a recognized agency to use “.edu” in their domain names.
If an institution offers life-experience degrees, but the website ends in .com, .net, .asp., or anything other than .edu, watch out. But it’s not always that simple.
According to the DoED, “Institutions that were approved to use an .edu before the new requirements were put in place may still be using the .edu as part of their Internet address. This means there may be some illegitimate institutions out there with an .edu.”
Again, our advice would be to do as much research as possible about any institution before applying.
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Competency-Based Education: A Legitimate Pathway to an Accelerated Degree
Fortunately, a relatively new model called “competency-based education” offers working adults a genuine way to leverage work and life experience to earn a college degree. The secret is breaking from something known as the “credit hour.”
A student in the University of Wisconsin Flexible Option describes how he leveraged his prior work experience to save time and money while working toward a UW degree.
Traditionally, students earn credit for how much time they spend in class, either on campus or online. For example, four hours of class per week across a traditional semester equals four college credits. The competency-based model changes the game by awarding credits based on demonstrated knowledge, leaving time entirely out of the equation. You learn the material on your own time—be it over a week, month, or year—and prove you’ve mastered the material when you’re ready. When you prove mastery through graded assessments, you are awarded college credit.
This model, based on assessments of competency, allows a student with experience in a subject area to take assessments whenever he or she chooses, instead of waiting until a mid-term or end-of-semester exam. For example, someone who has worked in the information technology (IT) field may be able to quickly demonstrate mastery of the competencies learned in an introductory IT course, earning four credits in less than a month instead of through a 14- to 20-week semester.
It may sound easy, but competency-based degrees require rigorous and rewarding coursework just like any worthwhile degree. If you are looking for a shortcut or an easy way to a college degree, then a competency-based degree is not for you.
But if you are motivated, experienced, and willing to work hard, a competency-based degree program allows you to earn a legitimate diploma on your own schedule using knowledge gained from past experience. Here’s how it works for people currently in the workforce:
- It’s flexible. Millions of adults want a college degree and may even have some college credit, but they simply lack the necessary time to complete their higher education degree through the traditional model. Competency-based programs give you the flexibility to earn your degree on your own time by placing the ball in your court. Work and study at your own pace, then prove you’ve mastered the material whenever you’re ready.
- It’s affordable. With competency-based programs, you pay a flat rate for a set period of your choice, rather than paying per course or credit. If you are a highly motivated student, you can progress more quickly than a traditional model allows, saving time and money.
- It’s accredited. Competency-based universities are always accredited, meaning your investment in higher education will be legitimate, worthwhile, and something an employer will recognize as a true college degree.
- Credits transfer. If you’ve earned credits through previous education, you may be able to transfer them to your new program and potentially graduate even faster.
- It increases your earning power. If you’re seeking a degree so you can land a higher-paying job or a raise, a competency-based degree can help you achieve that goal.
The ultimate guideline when choosing between competency-based degrees and so-called life-experience degrees? Choose an institution you know you can trust. When you consider the choices side by side, you’ll likely feel better about a college degree from an accredited university that offers a legitimate model for assessing the value and relevance of your work and life experience—and so will your employer.