COLLEGE CREDIT for what you've learned qualifying for the Olympics, getting a divorce, working in a political campaign, serving in the armed services? It's possible today through a new adult education concept: academic recognition for prior learning. Experiences which can provide college-level learning range from the exotic, such as playing championship tennis, to the expected, like gaining on-the-job management skills. But regardless of the circumstances, schools usually stress what you've learned, not the experience itself. "There is nothing," says Peter Meyer, author of Awarding College Credit for Non-College Learning, (Jossey Bass Inc., 433 California St., San Francisco, Calif. 94014, $10.95) "that raises a red flag faster than announcing that work experience per se will be evaluated for credit."

"Credit for this kind of working is not new," says Francis Macy, director of the National Center for Educational Brokering, whose affiliates provide counseling and other services to adults pursuing a postsecondary education. "The medical and teaching professions had long incorporated the practice. Then in the '70s, people began to ask why this kind of learning achieved earlier in a person's life shouldn't also be credited."

Morris Keeton, executive director of the Council for the Advancement of Experiential Learning, places this recent trend in the context of a larger education movement: "The pendulum is swinging back to practical learning."

This emphasis on the practical can be an enormous plus if you are over 25 and working toward a delayed degree. Institutions are increasingly willing to give your "school-of-hard-knocks" knowledge the ultimate seal of approval: college credit hours. "It's recognition you're in the same league with folks who have degrees," explains Bill Hopeck, a 40-year-old staff supervisor with AT&T who is applying for credits for prior learning at American University.

Just as important are the savings in time and money as you leapfrog over a year or more of courses.

Ruth Woidyla, a Marine major, frustrated in her slow progress toward a bachelor's degree through night courses, enrolled in American University's Assessment of Prior Experiential Learning program where she garnered 30 hours for prior learning. In addition to 12 hours she received for her military training, Woidyla earned 27 hours credit for the management, counseling and social services experience she gained while commanding a company of 350 women. She received three additional performing arts credits for the ballet studies which had helped her to design a special training course incorporating dance. Woidyla then arranged to attend AU full time for three semesters and will graduate in May. She hopes to become a clinical psychologist after she retires in August 1983.

Getting credits for prior learning can often save you money. "You might spend $35 to take an exam for credit, compared with $300 for the course," points out Clyde Aveihe, associate director at Educational Testing Service, which devised, scores and services the College-Level Entrance Program (CLEP), which measures the skills learned through prior experience.

The most popular methods of assessing prior learning are:

Standardized tests. CLEP is the most widely recognized of the national exams to determine college credit. Tests are administered monthly -- at the University of Maryland, the downtown CLEP office of ETS and George Mason University. (For information, call CLEP at 659-0620). CLEP consists of general exams in the liberal arts, tests in specific subjects and general essays.

"Challenge" procedures. Some schools allow you to "challenge" a course with a CLEP subject exam or a school-devised test. ETS puts out a book outlining such procedures: How to Get College Credit for What You Have Learned as a Homemaker and Volunteer (available from ETS, Publications Division, Princeton, N.J. 08541, $3).

Have you completed classes given by the armed forces, government or private industry? The American Council on Education produces the standard reference works used by colleges to grant credit for such learning: Guide to the Evaluation of Educational Experiences in the Armed Services and the National Guide to Credit Recommendation for Non-Collegiate Courses. "We publish credit recommendations," notes Henry Spille, director of ACE's Office on Educational Credit and Credentials, "but it's the institution's prerogative to do with them what they want."

Portfolio assessment. AU's Assessment of Prior Experiential Learning program helps adults identify and earn credit for their college-level learning, explains director Lenore Saltman.

College level learning can be extracted from many situations, says Saltman. "Take the case of parents of a handicapped child. Over the years, they might read a great deal of literature in the field, do volunteer work in a setting which requires professional level training, lobby for legislative change and perhaps become involved in court battles to enforce the rights of the handicapped.

"Through these experiences they may have learned a lot about that particular handicap, developed their communications skills and come to understand the legislative and judiciary processes."

Not that any of these automatically mean college credit, Saltman stresses. "If they can write it up, as generalized learning, there is a possibility they can earn credit." A maximum of 30 hours can be awarded under AU's Apel curriculum.

Bowie State College awards up to 60 credit hours to a student in its "Portfolio" program. Dr. Ida Stevens-Burghardt, coordinator, holds guidance seminars for portfolio students and serves as their liaison with faculty. Students permitted to "portfolio" courses assemble documentation which is evaluated by the department.

Gloria Holland, a communications media major who prepared a portfolio at Bowie, says, "Some people think it's an easy way to get your degree, but it's not a simple process." Holland is a writer-producer at Fort Meade's Defense Department-operated television studio. For designing and teaching video courses for the government, she received 24 hours of academic credit.

To explore how your own prior learning credits might add up, start with the admissions office or counselor at the schools you are considering. You might consider an external degree program, i.e., a program which is set up especially for the adult student seeking a degree. Some are run by universities. Others are operated by institutions set up solely for that purpose. Three on the East Coast have been created purely to assess students prior experience learning: Board of State Academic Awards, Hartford, Conn.; Thomas A. Edison College, Princeton, N.J., and Regents External Degrees, Albany, N.Y. These are "very legitimate programs," stresses Francis Macy at the National Center for Educational Brokering. "At relatively modest rates, they will assess and 'bank' your course and exam credits, advise you on meeting degree requirements through future work and will even assemble a panel of professionals who will judge your experiential learning."

The idea of credits for prior learning is not, however, universally accepted. George Mason University, for example, allows only four semester hours for protfolio-supported learning. Barbara Spath, coordinator of the bachelor of individualized study program, believes the concept is widely abused. "I think some private schools in desperate need of students are doing a disservice to all non-traditional programs by awarding too many credit hours with too little documentation." And Joseph Ruth, director of undergraduate admissions at George Washington University, says his school offers no portfolio program and limits credits by exam and similar means to 30 hours.

Both Spath and Ruth raise another crucial issue: your portfolio assessment credits may not be transferable to another college and may not be recognized by a graduate school. "We will not accept equivalency credits for transfer students," Ruth states.

On the other hand, "all graduate admissions committees have their biases," counters Dr. Donald Zauderer, of AU's school of government and public administration. "If it's not credits for prior learning, it's something else. The best safeguard is to research graduate degree programs ahead of time, before you go for undergraduate credits for prior learning."

Morris Keeton expects current controversies over credits for prior learning to subside. "Thirty years ago, the GED (General Educational Development exam) was a wild idea; now it's an accepted method of assessment of learning for high school credit."