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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November 30, 2020 · 9 min read

Your Questions About Nursing School, Answered

Wondering about the difference between an ADN and a BSN and what it could mean for your nursing career? We answer that question—and many more.

Written and reported by:

Chelsea Lin

Contributing writer

intense woman nurse working on desktop
intense woman nurse working on desktop

Deciding where, if, when, and how to pursue a career in nursing is no easy feat. Whether you’ve spent years contemplating the profession or are just getting started in your research, we know it can be confusing to navigate the back-to-school experience.

We gathered your questions shared on social media and in our surveys, and here, we present answers to some of the questions prospective nursing school students most commonly ask.

Don’t see your question here?
Email your questions to questions@ans-2020-02-17.mystagingwebsite.com and we’ll do some research for you.  We’re also on Facebook and Instagram. You can talk to us there anytime.


Education and Training

Can I apply my previous nursing or healthcare experience toward becoming an RN and/or earning a higher degree?

Registered nurses (RNs) must have at least an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), but some students decide to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). If you’re already working in the medical field, there are multiple pathways to work toward becoming an RN.

 Here are two examples:

How much math and science do I have to take to become a nurse?

These subjects appear to be a common fear among prospective students, and the answer depends on the type of nursing you pursue. If you’re interested in the LPN/LVN route, your training program will likely include science courses like anatomy, physiology, human growth and development, and basic nutrition. You may need to meet a math requirement to get into an LPN program.

Whether in an ADN or BSN degree program, a prospective registered nurse will likely need to take health-related science courses, as well as meet math requirements (and liberal arts, too).

Don’t let math anxiety keep you from pursuing your career goals. Revisit the basics—fractions are your friends!—if you feel like you’ve forgotten them since school. And don’t be afraid to hire a tutor to help you navigate college-level coursework that seems daunting.

I am a certified nursing assistant (CNA) and a certified medical assistant, and I have practiced in both fields. Do I have to go back to school to become an LPN, or can I just take the LPN exam, get licensed, and start work?

Having experience as a CNA is valuable in terms of knowing that nursing is the right field for you but, unfortunately, most CNA programs don’t apply toward course requirements to become an LPN. To become an LPN, you’ll still have to complete an approximately yearlong training program and then take the NCLEX-LPN exam to qualify for a license.  

Can I really get a nursing degree online?

Since nursing is a hands-on profession, even online nursing programs require in-person clinical training with real patients. Programs that combine online learning with real-world practice are called hybrids.

If you’re pursuing a bachelor’s degree and already have a combination of clinical hours and a current RN license, you may be able to find a program that is exclusively online.

Do schools help students find placements to meet clinical training hours, or do I have to do that?

Most schools have faculty advisors who will help find students placements for their clinical training hours. This is definitely something you should ask about, though, as you look at nursing programs.

Registered Nursing

What degree do I need to become an RN?

woman nurse holds ipad

To become an RN, you’ll need either an ADN or a BSN. There are pros and cons to each, of course: An ADN can be less of a time and monetary commitment, making it a good jumping-off point for prospective students with financial concerns, another job, or family to take care of.

A BSN, on the other hand, can lead to a job with more responsibility and higher pay.

If you choose the ADN route now, you can always go after that BSN later. You can even pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing.

What’s the best way to become an RN?

“One of the things I love about nursing is that there are so many doors to get into the nursing profession,” says Beverly Malone, CEO of the National League for Nursing, a membership organization for nurse faculty and leaders in nursing education.

Where to start “depends on your situation,” she says. “Match who you are with what you need,” meaning look for a program that suits your personal and family situation but also helps you achieve the nursing goal you’ve set.

If your goal is to be an RN, you’ll have to complete an ADN or BSN nursing program, pass the NCLEX-RN exam, and earn a state license.

An LPN-to-RN program allows LPNs to use their experience and prior coursework toward earning an ADN or BSN. The LPN-to-BSN route will take longer but can pay off better in terms of salary and job opportunities.

International Students

If I’ve already worked as a nurse in another country, what do I need to do to work in the U.S.?

You’ll need to meet several requirements to work in the U.S., a process that can take several years. Before you apply, you’ll need:

  • A degree from an accredited nursing program
  • An RN license in your country
  • An RN license in your country

If you meet these requirements, you can start the application process for a visa. This will involve an English-language test, a review of your credentials, a qualifying exam, and more.

School Search

What should I look for in a school?

Picking a school is not a decision to rush—you’ll want to feel welcomed, inspired, and that you’ve gotten the most for your effort and money. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Admissions requirements
  • Accreditation status, ensuring the program meets requirements for state licensing and professional certificates
  • Graduation rate
  • Pass rates for the NCLEX-RN and the NCLEX-LPN nursing exams, required nationwide
  • Percentage of recent graduates working in nursing
  • Ranking among other state programs

Malone says, besides these factors, “look at the faculty. Examine and investigate what you’re buying. Look to see what kind of relationships (the program) has with the community—that’s even bigger than career placement.

“If you’re looking for a school that recognizes the community and believes in it, you’ll find those kind of relationships (with churches, community centers, and the like.”)

National League for Nursing CEO Shares her Top 3 FAQs

Even after 52 years of nursing, National League for Nursing CEO Beverly Malone still describes her profession with the kind of effervescent joy of a new graduate. “Purpose, passion, and power—that’s what nursing is,” she says. As a nursing advocate, she fields plenty of questions. Here are answers to her top three. 

Is there a shortage of nurses?

“Yes, there’s really a shortage,” Malone says. “Most of us are over 40, even over 50, so there’s this whole issue of how we’re going to replace those who are going to retire or move on.”

Why did you choose to be a nurse?

“I have a great-grandmother who raised me and she was a community healer,” Malone says. “I worshipped the ground she walked on. I thought there was nothing better than to be needed by your community and make a difference in your community,” which Malone says is precisely what nurses do.

Is being a nurse difficult?

Malone thinks it’s the blood people worry about the most, and maybe dealing with accidents where there are multiple things going on at the same time. “But what you find is that you get into your helping mode,” she says. “‘We’ve got to save lives here, colleagues, let’s do it.’ Nurses are such doers, completers of actions. We’ll accompany you through some of the worst things that can happen, and what an honor that is! It’s worth the challenges; it’s so fantastic. We’re one of the few who wake up in the morning and know exactly why we’re here.”

General

Is there a nurse’s oath like the one for physicians?

Yes—while doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, nurses take the Nightingale Pledge, named for Florence Nightingale, who is considered the founder of modern nursing. The pledge calls on nurses to elevate the standard of their profession.

Licensing

Who grants nursing licensure and who can take it away?

After you complete your training, you’ll need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for a nursing license in the state in which you plan to work. You’ll send your transcripts, application, and fee to the state board that handles licensing. Each state has its own requirements.

If your nursing license is revoked due to violations of your state’s Nurse Practice Act, you might be able to petition the state board to reinstate it

What if I let my license lapse? What do I need to do to start working again?

If you let your license lapse for just a short time, you can generally renew it—perhaps by paying a late fee—without much trouble. But an extended inactive license could require refresher courses. Check your individual state requirements.

Can an LPN with an expired license become a CNA without further training?

While a CNA is a level down from an LPN, you might still be required to take CNA training, which is set by federal law, and a certification exam to be placed on your state’s CNA registry.

If you aren’t on the registry, nursing homes and Medicare and Medicaid facilities can’t hire you, according to Genevieve Gipson, RN, MEd, RNC, and director of the National Network of Career Nursing Assistants and Career Nurse Assistants Programs Inc.

Your state may have a waiver program or make exceptions, however, so check with your board of nursing or state health department to see if it has special requirements for trained LPNs who want to be CNAs.

Costs and Financial Aid

How much is tuition for nursing programs?

Tuition costs vary widely depending on the type of program you choose—private university versus community college, for example. Another factor is what kind of nurse you want to be.

For example, if you want to be an RN, you can choose a two-year ADN program or a four-year BSN program. Your best bet is to reach out directly to the schools you’re interested in and get the most up-to-date costs.

Are there additional costs to nursing school?

Yes—tuition isn’t the only cost you’re looking at. Here are a few others:

  • Scrubs and equipment
  • Textbooks
  • Additional tests and screenings (background check, drug screening, etc.)
  • Licensing fees

How do I get financial aid?

To qualify for financial assistance, including grants and loans, your school must be accredited, and you’ll need to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But that’s not the only avenue to financial aid.

male nurse with stethoscope holds ipad

Look into scholarships that you may qualify for—there are many options out there, including scholarships specifically for nursing students, single parents, first-generation college students, and more.

Can I go to school for free? I’ve heard about loan forgiveness—how does that work?

“Free” may be a stretch, but there are programs out there, like Nurse Corps, that will pay your tuition, fees, and other educational costs. In return, you must commit to working in an area where there’s a critical shortage of nurses for a set period of time, once you graduate.

Another government program, the Nursing Education Loan Repayment Program, has similar terms. It requires nurses to work for up to three years in an area with an underserved population and, in return, it’ll pay off up to 85% of your loan balance.

How do I get tuition reimbursement from my employer?

If your employer offers tuition reimbursement, talk with your benefits representative about the organization’s reimbursement policy. It might have very specific terms for reimbursement, including the types of classes you take and whether you complete a program. Your employer also might require documentation from the school you attend.

Salary

Will earning a BSN make a difference in my RN salary versus whether I just have an associate degree?

Earning a BSN can definitely have a positive impact on your salary: It can make you more desirable to employers, qualify you for a wider variety of jobs, and open doors to leadership opportunities.

Careers and Jobs

What’s the role of a CNA, and can the job vary by state?

Educational and licensing requirements for certified nursing assistants (CNAs) do vary by state, but the role is generally the same everywhere: helping patients with activities of daily living, such as eating, bathing, grooming, toileting, and moving around. It can be a physically demanding, though rewarding, profession.

What’s the difference between the roles of an LPN and RN?

The differences are distinct. LPNs provide basic medical care for patients, like checking their vitals, ensuring their comfort, and discussing healthcare issues with them. RNs, on the other hand, may perform diagnostic tests, administer medications, put together treatment plans, and supervise other medical workers, including LPNs.

Can travel nurses work with an associate degree, or is a bachelor’s required? Do they need a specialty?

Travel nurses, who work temporary positions in areas with shortages, must have an RN license, which means an ADN is fine. Having a specialty is not necessary, though it may lead to more destination options and higher pay. 

Applying and Enrollment

I’ve requested information from some schools but haven’t heard back. Who do I contact?

Reach out directly to the nursing programs, if that’s an option. A quick phone call usually will yield better results than an email, especially if you’re following up with specific questions.

Otherwise, contact the program’s admissions department—and remember, staff is there to help sell you on the school, so get your questions answered!


beverly malone

With professional insight from:

Beverly Malone

CEO of the National League for Nursing


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