Published on 2013/04/02
Prior Learning Assessment: Making Learning Count
Given the increasing importance of earning a degree for success in today’s workforce, institutions must begin to look at prior learning assessment as a way to bring in non-traditional students with the knowledge needed to earn a degree, but not the time to complete it in a traditional timeframe.

Advocates and practitioners know there are a multitude of reasons to promote lifelong learning, not the least of which is the fact that the jobs of the 21st century will increasingly require workers with postsecondary degrees and certificates. There are many strategies that help promote degree completion, and prior learning assessment (PLA) is one tool that can help colleges and universities attract adult learners and support them as they complete their educational objectives.

PLA is the term used to describe various methods of evaluating the learning individuals gain outside a classroom for college credit or certification. Methods of assessment include examinations, third-party course material evaluations and individual student portfolios.

PLA does not aim to replace classroom learning. Rather, it seeks to recognize learning that has already taken place, no matter how or where it was acquired. Today’s non-traditional learner may have acquired learning through a variety of extra-institutional opportunities, including but not limited to:

  • Employment/employee training programs
  • Military service
  • Volunteer work/community service
  • Travel
  • Non-college courses/seminars
  • Self-study
  • Open source Internet courseware (e.g. MOOCs, or massive online open courses)

The Value of — and Barriers to — Lifelong Learning

Recent labor market projections and other analyses point to how much education and credentials matter — to individuals and employers — both today and in the future. However, obstacles often stand in the way of gaining the needed credentials.

This February, Lumina Foundation and Gallup released the report, America’s Call for Higher Education Redesign, consisting of a 2012 survey of more than 1,000 adults. The consensus of the respondents was that postsecondary education is important: 97 percent of survey respondents recognized a certificate or degree beyond high school is important (72 percent said education is, in fact, “very important”), and 97 percent also said education beyond high school is important to a person’s financial security. Despite this consensus, only 41 percent of respondents without a degree or certificate had thought about going back to school to earn one, and 61 percent said they were unlikely to go back to school. Respondents pointed to family responsibilities (38 percent), the cost of higher education (28 percent) and job responsibilities (15 percent) as the top three barriers to adult re-enrollment in higher education — in other words, time and money.

The Case for PLA

When it comes to addressing the key barriers of time and money for adult learners, PLA can make all the difference. A 2010 CAEL report, Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success, provides support for PLA’s effectiveness as a tool to help adult learners gain meaningful credentials faster and at a lower cost.

Measuring the academic progress of more than 62,000 adult students at 48 colleges and universities, the CAEL study found students with credit earned through PLA achieved better academic outcomes than non-PLA students. From data gathered over a seven-year period, CAEL found PLA students were more than two-and-a-half times more likely to persist to graduation than non-PLA students. This graduation differential held true regardless of gender, age, race, financial aid status or grade point average.

The potential for cost savings from PLA is also clear since the cost of having prior learning evaluated for credit is typically less than the tuition expense for the same number of credit hours. The CAEL study estimated that an adult student who earns 15 PLA credits can save from a minimum of about $1,605 at a large public university to a maximum of about $6,000 at other institutions.

As confirmed by this research, PLA offers a powerful tool for strengthening the credentials of our workforce. To ensure quality in the PLA process, institutions offering PLA options are encouraged to follow CAEL’s Ten Standards for Assessing Learning.

While many institutions already offer one PLA method or more, there is a need to scale up PLA so adult learners have ready access. In response, CAEL has launched LearningCounts.org, a full-service online portal that helps students determine their most appropriate PLA method and subsequently offers them online portfolio development classes and assessment services conducted by a national network of faculty experts. It is not, however, CAEL alone that understands the value of PLA. Indeed, recognition of PLA as a valuable tool in the education process has been growing rapidly.

Support for PLA

Adult learners are increasingly recognizing the value of PLA as a means for saving time and money. In the Lumina/Gallup poll cited above, 75 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to enroll in a higher education program if they could receive credit for what they already know. Additionally, more than half of respondents added that institutions should allow students to finish courses in less time if they have demonstrated mastery of skills related to the material being taught.

More and more, policy leaders are also speaking to the value of PLA. At the state level, officials are taking the lead in promoting PLA through statewide PLA policies for public higher education institutions. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor has specifically encouraged consideration of PLA for adult and dislocated workers served by the workforce system in its 2012 guidance letter, TEGL 33-11.

Despite the support of some policy leaders, there are still significant policy barriers that must be addressed. For example, students who rely on financial aid through Pell Grants are generally not able to use these funds for assessment that is charged separately from a course. We expect (and hope) this can change as more officials understand what PLA is and how important it is to recognize learning regardless of how it is acquired.

At a time of limited public resources, it makes no sense not to support PLA as part of a student’s pathway to a degree. As we move firmly into a 21st century that requires an ever-more dynamic and educated workforce, it is critical that more higher education institutions and policy leaders look at PLA as a viable solution.

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Readers Comments

Bill Davis 2013/04/02 at 9:49 am

It’s time to also start thinking about how to involve employers in the PLA-granting process. Their role could range from providing reference letters for an adult student seeking credit for work completed to awarding subsidies for PLA exams taken (similar to tuition support some already provide). The private sector certainly has a role to play in this along with governments and institutions.

Amy Walker 2013/04/02 at 11:43 am

I’m surprised at the graduation differential between PLA and non-PLA adult students. I would be interested to know what the non-completers cited as their reason(s) for leaving school early. Presumably, the reasons have to do with time and money, as these are identified as barriers for adult students at the beginning of this article. But more information on what respondents indicated would be interesting.

Jim Barbera 2016/08/28 at 3:35 pm

I am taking a CAEL course through my school and was wondering if the issue of PELL grants not allowing funds to pay for PLA costs is still true.

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