Prior Learning Assessment is Available, but Students are Not Using It

Blog Post
March 17, 2021

This blog is part of a series about student transfer in higher education and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on transfer students. You can read more here.

For many adults, returning to college seems daunting. Financing aside, many will have to constantly juggle between work and family for a period of time, which (depending on what they want to study) can take somewhere from four months to a couple of years. Prior learning assessment (PLA) can address these concerns for adult students.

PLA, also known as credit for prior learning or recognition of prior learning, evaluates and awards credits for the college-level learning that takes place outside of classrooms, helping students persist and complete their programs faster. The problem is: While PLA has been around for a while, not many students had applied for and received credits through this process. As adult students might return to college to reskill or upskill following the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges should reevaluate and strengthen their PLA policies to make sure students are aware and take advantage of PLA opportunities.

PLA is no new idea: It has been around since the 1930s, and in the past years has gained attention as a method to help students get credit for what they know and shorten their time to degree. Students can earn PLA credits through different methods, including: standardized exams such as the College-Level Evaluation Program (CLEP), evaluation of corporate, military, or other non-credit training using the American Council on Education (ACE) credit recommendations, challenge exams, and portfolio assessment. Colleges can apply credits earned through PLA to waive students’ course prerequisites, or towards their general education and program credit requirements.

The evidence shows that PLA increases student completion, saves them money, and speeds time to degree. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) conducted a study during 2018 and 2020 of adult students at 69 colleges and universities that offered PLA and found that nearly half of students who earned PLA credits completed their programs compared to just 27 percent of students without PLA. It estimated that PLA increased the likelihood of adult student completion by more than 17 percent, and the positive effect also holds for Black and Latinx students, students at community college and minority-serving institutions, and students who received Pell grants. Furthermore, the study found that students with PLA credits saved on average $1,500 at community colleges and as much as $10,200 at four-year private non-profit institutions. Those with at least 12 PLA credits also earned their associate degree 14 months earlier than those without (9 months earlier for bachelor’s degrees).

Given these benefits, PLA can make a return to higher education more appealing for adult students.

However, while a survey conducted by the American Association of the Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) in 2019 found that 8 in 10 surveyed institutions offer at least one PLA option, PLA take-up rate among students remains low. The study conducted by CAEL and WICHE found that only 11 percent of students across all 69 institutions have applied and received PLA credits.

In a 2018 study of how grantees from the Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program developed and implemented their PLA policies, New America, found that, even for grantees with well-developed PLA policies, students’ unfamiliarity with PLA and the college’s lack of communication to connect students with PLA opportunities were one of the main reasons for low take-up. The process of applying for PLA, especially for students that build portfolios for assessment, can be confusing and time-consuming, hence students need advising throughout. Furthermore, hesitance from faculty about granting credits for out-of-classroom learning remains an issue that hinders PLA implementation.

To make PLA work for more students, these problems have to be solved. First, colleges should get better at communicating with students about PLA opportunities. Our research shows that simply putting PLA in a brochure is not good enough, students will need consistent advising and guidance throughout the process to earn the credits they deserve. The study by CAEL and WICHE found a lower take-up rate among Black and low-income students than other adult student groups. It’s imperative, therefore, that colleges ensure their outreach efforts are inclusive of minority students. In addition, gaining faculty buy-in is key to implementing PLA effectively. College administrators should involve faculty in developing PLA policies, communicating with them about the improved outcomes for students with PLA credits. Last but not least, collecting and analyzing data on students’ usage of PLA can inform PLA practices at the institutions.

Students would also greatly benefit from PLA if this becomes a system-wide effort. State system leaders should develop system-wide PLA policies to enhance consistency in PLA implementation across institutions. The policy should make sure that PLA credits granted in an institution will also be accepted if students transfer to another institution within the system.

Returning to college after a while can be stressful for adult students. PLA will not only alleviate some of their stress and help them graduate sooner--it also makes students feel valued as they realize their experiences are recognized and rewarded at college. If colleges can implement PLA well, they can potentially encourage more adult students to enroll or persist.

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