Life Experience Degrees: Are They Legitimate?

The internet is full of advertisements offering the chance to quickly and easily earn an undergraduate or graduate degree based on life experience. Are these life experience degrees legitimate?
You've probably received an email message that offered you the chance to quickly and easily earn a "prestigious" degree based on life experience. Just call the phone number in the email, give them your credit card number, and they'll take care of the rest. Such spam is pretty obvious to spot and hopefully you simply delete those messages.

But what about more sophisticated web sites that promise college degrees based on life experience? Perhaps they ask for copies of transcripts, test scores, job reports, or personal narratives. They might even mention how people with college degrees earn far more money than those without undergraduate or graduate degrees. Are these legitimate?

Please be aware that emails advertising so-called life experience degrees are most likely from unaccredited and dubious (if not fraudulent and illegal) institutions. If someone offers you an MBA or Ph.D. degree based on life experience, for example, that should be a red flag. The answer to the question of whether life experience degrees are legitimate is no, and yes, and no. Since that's three answers to one question, let's look at each in detail.

The first answer is no. You cannot earn a credible degree based on life experience. No accredited college or university in the United States will offer "life experience degrees." What is accreditation? In short, it's a form of institutional peer review where representatives from accredited schools evaluate other schools to ensure that they offer quality educational programs. There are numerous accrediting agencies in the United States and the reputable ones are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. You can find a listing of recognized accreditation agencies and accredited schools by searching the Institution Accreditation database sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

The second answer is yes. On the undergraduate level, you can earn an entire associates or bachelors degree through a demonstration of prior learning. Demonstrating prior learning typically involves using transfer credits, credit by examination, or portfolio development and evaluation. Note that prior learning assessment is a more formal procedure than so-called credit for life experience and is recognized as a legitimate means of granting credit. If you can demonstrate that you've learned something equivalent to content taught in a college course, then you can earn college credits and apply them an undergraduate degree. The three accredited schools best suited for prior learning degrees are Charter Oak State College, Excelsior College, and Thomas Edison State College.

The third answer is no. Prior learning assessment as a means of earning a complete degree doesn't apply to graduate programs -- all accredited masters and doctoral degrees are based on new learning. While you may be able to earn a few graduate credits based on prior learning assessment, they are generally limited to a handful, if any. If you closely examine the schools that advertise graduate degrees based on life experience, you'll notice that they aren't accredited by a recognized agency, and so you would be wise to avoid such programs.

So you can earn credit and even an undergraduate degree through a demonstration of prior learning but be wary of programs that lack accreditation or promote quick degrees through life experience. At the minimum, you'll receive a credential with little value in the marketplace. At the maximum, you'll be violating state law by using an unrecognized credential and bring penalties and embarrassment upon yourself. Earn your degree right the first time and your efforts will speak for themselves.

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Jason D. Baker, Ph.D. is the author of Baker's Guide to Christian Distance Education. began in 1997 as an online listing of accredited Christian universities offering distance learning programs and has grown into the leading free online resource in the field.

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