Published on 2013/07/31
States Are Taking the Lead in Prior Learning Policy
Creating a higher education environment more accepting of prior learning credentials requires significant changes in state and federal policy, as well as infrastructure upgrades.

In the United States, one in five citizens (more than 43 million) have previously attended college, but for a multitude of reasons, left before finishing. While not all of these individuals plan to go back to school to complete their degrees, many are working adults who would benefit from a postsecondary credential. The biggest barriers for these working adults are generally time and money. The last thing they would ever want to do is take classes for subjects they have already mastered.

For these working learners, prior learning assessment (PLA) can mean the difference between the status quo and taking action to return to college. PLA evaluates the learning gained outside of the traditional classroom for college credit, from sources such as the workplace, military service, volunteerism and online open-source courses (or other forms of self-study).

As detailed in an article I wrote a few months ago, a 2010 multi-institutional study revealed adult students with PLA credits are two and a half times more likely to persist to graduation than adult students without PLA credit. This held true regardless of race, gender, age, income level or academic performance. Additionally, when PLA credits count towards a postsecondary degree, it saves students time and money. Nonetheless, many students are unaware of PLA and many institutions still do not offer the full range of PLA options. In addition, schools with PLA often lack consistent and transparent policies.

In order to scale up PLA, we need two things:  a national infrastructure and supportive PLA policies, both at the federal and state level.

On the infrastructure front, my organization (the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL) launched LearningCounts, a national online PLA service that supports colleges and universities that lack the capacity to offer PLA.

We are also working with many others on the policy front to advance PLA. At the federal level, the most important change would be the designation of PLA as an allowable expense under Title IV so low-income students can use their financial aid resources to cover the costs of PLA. CAEL President Pamela Tate recently testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce urging them to explicitly cover PLA in the anticipated Higher Education Act reauthorization.

While this change in federal policy would have a great impact, state policy change is equally important for PLA to flourish. It is at the state level where system-wide PLA can encourage institutional investment in PLA while removing unnecessary barriers. For example, colleges and universities that receive financial incentives for serving adult learners are more likely to incorporate innovative strategies such as PLA.  Also, adopting an overall state approach to PLA can eliminate potential challenges such as the recognition of PLA credits upon transfer to another institution within a system.

An increasing number of state leaders are calling for an expansion of PLA at a time when resources are scarce and the need for a credential workforce is strong. States have taken different approaches to promoting PLA, from supporting demonstration projects to enacting legislation. For leaders who want to move on PLA at the state level, below are some steps to consider as a part of a larger action plan:

  • Inventory current PLA practices throughout the state to identify strengths and gaps.
  • Investigate how PLA is being used successfully in other states.  Do not reinvent the wheel!
  • Engage representatives from postsecondary institutions’ faculty and administration, workforce agencies and employers, to both raise awareness about PLA and gain input and buy-in as policies are developed.
  • Consider creating a task force with clearly articulated goals and timelines for implementing and providing PLA.
  • Think system, not institution. For example, given the mobility of today’s learner, transferability of PLA credits must be addressed.
  • Ensure quality through clear standards such as CAEL’s Ten Quality Standards.
  • Make information on PLA easily accessible for students.
  • Require PLA training for faculty, advisors and staff. 
  • Collect data and publish regular reports on how PLA is being used throughout the state.

As noted above, a lot of PLA activity is already happening in many states. In a 2012 publication, HCM Strategists and CAEL identified more than 20 states that have introduced or passed PLA legislation since 2008. For example, legislation passed in Oregon and Washington has established committees to develop PLA policies in public colleges and universities. Colorado passed legislation requiring all public institutions to adopt PLA policies or programs. In Tennessee, the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 incentivizes the state’s public colleges and universities to raise the awareness and accessibility of PLA for students. And in Pennsylvania, the state’s higher education system has relied on LearningCounts.org to provide consulting and training services for schools using the assessment method. This legislative push reflects a call to action for innovative and smart approaches when it comes to addressing the needs of adult learners. With the growing interest in PLA as one tool to address adult degree completion, we expect to see leaders in more states move forward to expand access to PLA for their adult learners.

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Readers Comments

Madison Riley 2013/07/31 at 8:42 am

Increasingly, for-profit corporations are taking advantage of PLA, so it is no longer a question of traditional higher education institutions owning this type of credentialing. For example, I’ve read that McDonald’s has used resources from CAEL to assess its employees. Thus, I foresee a growing demand for some type of clearly articulated position or policy on PLA at both government levels.

Will Wright 2013/07/31 at 12:37 pm

It’s encouraging that states are beginning to take initiative on PLA in the absence of clear federal government involvement. I think what we’re still waiting for, however, is a paradigm shift. There needs to be widespread acceptance of PLA as a legitimate tool for credentialing within higher education so there is that push from the ground for governments at both levels to take action. I believe we have yet to see that push.

Ursula V.F. 2013/08/01 at 11:46 am

It would be interesting to see how many institutions have taken advantage of a resource such as the Learning Counts tool by CAEL. While there has been a general consensus that PLA could be good for non-traditional students and should at least be considered by institutions, I don’t see evidence of its widespread adoption. I’d like some hard numbers on how many institutions currently practice PLA to award credit to students. What are their results? Do they have lessons learned? Let’s establish some hard data on PLA before expecting state or federal governments to seriously consider the issue.

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