Oct. 23, 2019
Little did Brittany Block know when she decided to go back to college that she would finish a bachelor's degree in two years.
Block returned to college during one of the most difficult time of her life. Her son was just 1.5 years old, and with no family support nearby, she was relying on housing and childcare assistance from a local program dedicated to single moms like her. During her first semester at Inver Hills Community College, she was introduced to a support program for adult students that helps them earn college credits for what they already know. Joining the program, Block was able to transfer her experience from her previous job into college credits, rather than sitting through classes teaching content she already knew. She completed her study at Inver Hills, transferred to Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, and earned a bachelor’s degrees--all in just two years.
The process that helped Block earn credits for the learning she acquired from her previous job is called prior learning assessment (PLA). Also known as credit for prior learning (CPL), PLA evaluates and awards college credit for college-level learning acquired outside of postsecondary institutions, using methods such as standardized exams, challenge exams, and portfolio assessment. Credits earned from PLA can be counted towards the program’s credit requirement to graduate, hence helping students earn their degrees sooner. PLA is no new idea: it has been around for more than 80 years, and recently became a popular option at colleges as a way to help students, especially adults returning to college, accelerate their time to completion.
Colleges offer PLA in different ways. At Inver Hills where Block enrolled, a support program for adult students, known as Adult Success Through Accelerated Pathways (ASAP), helps students plan their degree path and connect them to PLA. Whether the student’s goal is to earn an associate degree or to transfer to a four-year institution, the ASAP program requires the student to take a semester-long course that advised them on a plan to achieve their education goals. The plan walks the student through the ins-and-outs of the college-going process, among them: how to apply college-level learning from outside to their degree. After deciding which knowledge or skills may count, students can demonstrate their proficiency through various methods, such as standardized tests, examination, or pre-determined credit crosswalks.
Block learned about the program completely by chance, from a conversation she had with a professor. It turned out, instead of having to sit through classes in Microsoft Excel and Business Techniques--the skill she was already familiar with from her previous work, Block took a test and interviewed with a faculty to earn credit for these classes. The ASAP program also supported her transfer to St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, making sure her credits, including the PLA credits, were transferred and counted towards a bachelor’s degree.
Unfortunately, too few students know that PLA is an option. In a recent research, we explored the challenges of implementing PLA from a large, federal investment in community colleges. We found that even with a sizable investment, PLA was hard to scale. Having said that, some colleges were able to make it work, through a combination of program design and advising. Although Inver Hills Community College is still working to improve how it connects students to the ASAP program, the program created a structured approach that help adults plan their education and connect them to PLA opportunities.
Students like Block account for one fifth of the undergraduate population in the U.S. They tend to be women, people of color, and/or low-income; they are also more likely to drop out without a degree. PLA can help them. By taking into account students’ outside learning, PLA gets students to complete the degree faster, saving them money and getting them ready for the workforce sooner. But PLA can only help students if they know about PLA and use it. Through program design combined with advising, such as the ASAP program in Inver Hills, colleges can connect PLA to more students, guiding and encouraging them to make use of the opportunity.
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