The average difference in lifetime earnings between someone with a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree is a cool $1 million. But the idea of going back to school when your life's already in full swing can feel overwhelming. "Life experience" credits, also known as prior learning credits, can save you time and money and make that degree you've been wishing you had a very possible dream. An increasing number of colleges and universities offer degree pathways that include credit for prior learning.

Types of Prior Learning Assessments

Some colleges and universities offer portfolio development support and assessment. If you've created a lot of tangible work product such as art, design or technical writing, you may be able to prepare a strong portfolio. Other places may allow you to take exams for courses you feel you've already mastered, resulting in either credit or the waiving of that course requirement. Many colleges accept the results of College Level Examination Program exams. And you might be able to receive college credit for certain types of professional and military training and certifications.

Choosing a School

Most college websites and course catalogs offer information about prior learning credit policies, including assessment methods, how many credits can be achieved that way and which kinds of training and professional certification they consider creditworthy. The vast majority require that you supplement what you have already learned with some of their course offerings to earn a degree. When you find a school that seems to offer what you need, contact an admissions counselor who can help you determine whether its policies and offerings are a good fit.

Assessment Centered Colleges

A small but growing handful of legitimately accredited schools allow you to complete an online degree based completely on prior learning assessment. Western Governors University, based in Salt Lake City, offers online bachelor's- and master's-level programs in teaching, business, information technology and health professions. Charter Oak State College is the online branch of Connecticut's state university system, offering majors in cyber security, health care administration, health information management or general studies in a wide range of concentrations. New Jersey's Thomas Edison State College, founded in the 1970s specifically for adult learners, offers over 100 areas of concentration leading to undergraduate and graduate degrees. Excelsior College, based in Albany, New York, offers degrees in business, health sciences, liberal arts, nursing, public service, and technology.

Watch Out for Scammers

This is an area of education that attracts a lot of firms that set up elaborate diploma mill websites where you can pay for a worthless degree, according to GetEducated.com, a consumer group that publishes online college rankings. Any place that offers a degree based solely on your resume, without requiring in-depth competency assessment, portfolio, or proof of certification, is a waste of money, according to GetEducated. And don't be fooled by fake "accrediting" agencies. Valid agencies will be approved by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.