January 5, 2021 · 7 min read

How to Get Credit for Prior Learning in Nursing Programs

If you’re ready to move to the next level of nursing in school, you may qualify for academic credit based on your experience outside a classroom.

anna giorgi

Written and reported by:

Anna Giorgi

Contributing Writer

nurse staff training at patient bedside
nurse staff training at patient bedside

Getting credit for prior learning can help you save time and money when you advance your nursing education. Whether you’re a certified nursing assistant (CNA), licensed nurse practitioner (LPN), or registered nurse (RN), you may be able to apply your knowledge and experience toward credits that can help you complete a nursing program without taking coursework on content you already know.

Credit for prior learning takes into account knowledge and experience gained outside a classroom.

Nursing programs that offer this option recognize that students can gain knowledge from both formal and informal, or experiential, learning.

The Role of Prior Learning Assessments

Programs award credit for prior learning in several ways, including using evaluations called prior learning assessments (PLAs). PLAs measure your knowledge against college-level content.

In a recent study, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) reported that students who received PLA credit saved nine to 14 months of study time by earning credits for about a semester of full-time study. For these students, the PLA credits translated into savings of between $1,500 and $10,200 in education costs.

While there’s a practical advantage to reducing the time it takes to complete a program, this benefit may also support academic success. In the same study, 49% of adult students who received PLA credit completed their postsecondary degree or certificate, while only 27% of students who didn’t receive credit achieved that goal.

“When you’re applying for a program and you have a lot of experience that you think is relevant, it’s always worth asking to see if there are ways to get credit or advanced standing based on what you already know and can do,” says Becky Klein-Collins, CAEL’s associate vice president, Advancement and Impact.

How Credit for Prior Learning Works

Credit you receive for prior learning will depend on a program’s guidelines and your ability to demonstrate your knowledge. You’ll find that programs differ on:

  • The number of prior learning credits they award
  • The types of courses you can skip
  • The total number of prior learning credits you can apply toward a specific program

Some programs may only allow you to apply general education courses or electives to prior learning credits. Other programs may have fewer restrictions and give you credits toward core nursing courses. 

Another consideration: Nursing programs typically align with criteria set by state nursing boards, so your options may vary by state.

  • Pro Tip
    Make sure to verify that any prior learning credit meets the requirements of the state in which you will take your licensure exam. Otherwise, you’ll risk having an education that doesn’t qualify you for licensure.

With so much to consider, make sure to meet with an admissions counselor to figure out your eligibility for prior learning credits and the nursing program’s policies.

“Meeting with an advisor is an absolute must before you enroll or pay one penny of tuition or fees,” Klein-Collins says. “Typically, for adult students who are juggling a lot in terms of a current job, family responsibilities, and other responsibilities that you may have, you’re going to be prioritizing programs that are going make it easy to fit into your life and get you to where you want to go.”

Make sure to meet with an admissions counselor to figure out your eligibility for prior learning credits.

Many nursing programs are designed for students who want to progress from one level of nursing to the next. These programs award credit for formal learning and professional experience by designing curriculum that avoids duplication of coursework.

Here’s a look at some options.

Stackable Credits

If your school offers programs for more than one level of nursing, find out whether it offers stackable credentials. In this scenario, students who have earned a certificate, such as a CNA, may be able to progress to a licensed practical nurse diploma or Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) at the same school because the programs build on one another.

Bridge Programs

Bridge programs give consideration to the education, license, and professional credentials you’ve already earned. Some may also allow you to apply your professional experience toward program credits. Popular bridge programs include LPN to RN, and RN to BSN.

Accelerated Programs

Accelerated nursing programs are geared toward students who have a bachelor’s or graduate degree in a non-nursing major. These programs allow students to concentrate on core nursing content and clinical skills without repeating the general education courses they took for their previous degree.

Transfer College Credits

If you have credits from an accredited school, you may be able to transfer them to satisfy some of the requirements in another program. Many schools have online calculators to determine if a course you’ve taken would count toward a course in a program you’re considering.

Find out if your previous school has agreements with other institutions that accept credits toward nursing programs. This is common among community colleges and four-year schools.

Competency-Based Education

If you know most of the material presented in a class, you may be able to leverage your knowledge in a nursing program that offers competency-based education.

These programs allow you to skip semester- or quarter-long courses and test out of sections or units when you’ve learned the coursework, speeding your progress.

Pro Tip
Even if you have transferable coursework, you’ll need to make sure it hasn’t expired. Many STEM courses expire after 10 years due to advances in science and technology. 

“Particularly for occupational programs, where the programs are overseen by state licensing boards, there are likely stipulations about how long your credits are good,” Klein-Collins says.

Credit by Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)

nurse student in classroom

If you have relevant knowledge or experience gained outside the classroom, you may be able to earn college credit from a PLA.

“When those opportunities are available, there would have to be some sort of formal evaluation or assessment of the learning that the student acquired from previous work experience, not simply an award of credit or advanced standing because a person held a specific position for a certain number of years,” Klein-Collins says.

This could be a good route if you’re a CNA or LPN without formal college credits but with relevant knowledge that you can demonstrate.

There are several assessments, so check with your nursing program to determine which ones they accept.

The most common assessments include:

CLEP and DSST

CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) and DSST (DANTES Subject Standardized Tests) are approved by the American Council on Education (ACE) to award college credit:

  • CLEP offers 34 exams accepted at more than 2,900 colleges and universities.
  • DSST offers 37 exams accepted at more than 1,900 colleges and universities.

Passing a test by either group can entitle you to three or more college credits, depending on your school’s criteria.

Nursing Challenge Exams

Nursing challenge exams are tests created by nursing programs that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of specific subjects.

The National League for Nursing (NLN) offers five Nursing Acceleration Challenge Examinations (NACE) for standardized evaluation of nursing knowledge. The exams are primarily for LPN students seeking advanced placement in RN or BSN programs and align with courses found in many nursing schools:

  • Nursing Care of the Child
  • Nursing Care of the Childbearing Family
  • Foundations of Nursing
  • Nursing Care of the Adult Client
  • Nursing Care of the Client with Mental Disorder

Nursing Portfolio Assessment

Some nursing programs accept a portfolio to determine whether you qualify for credit or advanced standing in a nursing program. A nursing portfolio typically includes:

  • School transcripts
  • Licenses
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Continuing education certificates

It can also include awards, specialty certifications, and other documentation that proves your range of experience.

Nursing faculty review portfolios to determine if a person’s experience fits the program and the amount of credit or advanced placement they receive.

Credit for Training

You may be able to earn credits or advanced placement for employment, volunteering, or military training.

  • The American Council on Education (ACE) assesses non-college-based courses, exams, and professional licenses and credentials. You can search the ACE National Guide to find out if you’ve completed a program that may qualify for credit toward your nursing program.
  • The National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) assesses training and educational programs offered outside the traditional college classroom. Search the NCCRS online directory to determine whether you’ve completed a course that may be eligible for credit.

Finding the Right Program

If you qualify for credit for prior learning, you’ll want to choose a program that offers the best reward for your knowledge.

“It’s important to ask really good questions about how well the program is connected to local employers where you are, so that they can help you find a job at the other end of it,” Klein-Collins says. “None of it is worth anything if you can’t get a job when you’re done.”

Five Questions to Ask About Credit for Prior Learning

When evaluating a nursing program, ask these questions to find out what you need to know about credit for prior learning:

How does the school award credit for prior learning or prior learning assessments?

What is the maximum number of transfer or PLA credits that I can apply toward the program?

How long will it take to complete the program with any transferred credits or credit for prior learning?

Does the school have a pathway for stackable certificates or degrees that I can apply toward this program?

Do local employers have a strong track record of hiring program graduates?


becky klein collins

With professional insight from:

Becky Klein-Collins

Associate Vice President, Advancement and Impact
Council of Adult and Experiential Learners



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