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Equity Considerations in Credit for Prior Learning and Beyond

Higher ed is more accessible to more people than ever before, but there is still much to be done to create a fully inclusive system for historically underrepresented students.
Higher ed is more accessible to more people than ever before, but there is still much to be done to create a fully inclusive system for historically underrepresented students.

Calls for inclusive strategies attending to historically marginalized student experiences are emerging in higher education generally, including in the assessment of student learning. Credit for prior learning (CPL) efforts are already positioned to center diverse student experiences and recognize diverse ways of learning. Further, CPL can amplify student voices to foster systemic and social change through institutional practices. Yet despite CPL being a great tool for recognizing diverse learning experiences, existing institutional policies and practices may not be providing equitable access to CPL for all learners. CAEL and WICHE research has been helpful in shining a light on the needs to expand equitable CPL practices. In addition to summarizing their findings and recommendations, this article provides reflection from a practitioner on how equity in CPL can also lead to broader discussions about needed changes to improve equity in our postsecondary contexts.

Background Context and Research Findings

The racial and socio-economic profile of students advancing from K-12 education to higher education has changed substantially over time. While higher education has become more accessible to a more diverse student body, persistent disparities in educational outcomes suggest we still have a long way to go to create inclusive and supportive systems and processes for historically underrepresented students. CPL policies and practices are no exception.

Recent research from CAEL and WICHE provided evidence of the extraordinary benefits adult learners gain through CPL — not just the saving of time and money, but also a greater likelihood of persistence and completion. Further, the completion benefit was strong and positive for all adult student subgroups, including Black, Hispanic, and low income adults. Despite these benefits of CPL, only about 11% of adult students use CPL, and usage was lowest for Black, lower-income, and community college-attending adult students. Follow up research last year identified some possible causes for the lower CPL usage by these students: Black and lower income adult students may be less likely to earn CPL credits due to cost, institutions may not adequately invest in CPL marketing and support, institutions may adhere to narrow definitions of what kinds of occupations produce college-level learning, and historically underrepresented students may have lower confidence in themselves as learners and may therefore not see themselves as good candidates for CPL credit.

In order to better realize the promise of CPL for these important student populations, CAEL and WICHE recommend a number of mitigation strategies for institutions to help ensure target student populations are encouraged to engage in CPL. Recommendations can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Prioritizing equity in CPL design. Examine existing CPL offerings and look to increase offerings applicable to learning in a wide range of occupations. Make sure CPL options (e.g., tests, papers, portfolios) are also varied to capture the multiple ways adults have learned and can demonstrate their learning.
  2. Increase communication and transparency. Be more targeted and proactive in marketing efforts across multiple forms of media to reach student populations. Leverage CPL marketing information to share crosswalks between industry-developed skills and academic programs. Help students see the applicability of their knowledge and skills for CPL credit for their desired credential and field.
  3. Build CPL into existing systems and processes. Don’t leave CPL on its own as a separate entity; embed CPL as a consideration in academic advising and curriculum considerations for students. Make sure to leverage data infrastructure and analysis efforts to surface equity gaps and applicability of CPL to support students with unsatisfactory progression.

These research findings can help institutions develop new strategies to support adult students, equity gaps in CPL usage, and support the overall success of historically underrepresented students.

Beyond CPL: Infusing Equity in Educational Operations

The above recommendations are a good start to address equity within higher education, but they are just a start since CPL is only one part of any adult student’s broader higher education experience. It is therefore worth exploring additional considerations and practical examples of infusing equity into educational operations.

            First, valuing diverse experiences is an important part of the classroom experience. Faculty can make the learning environment more welcoming to diverse adult learner experiences by engaging students in all aspects of the curriculum. For example, faculty can engage students in conversations around learning outcomes. Motivation and expectations can be appropriately set when students understand what is expected of them and what they are working toward, and how one course’s learning outcomes are connected to their ultimate academic and career goals. Moreover, students will be quick to tell you if learning outcome language is inaccessible, unclear, and not easily understood by them. Involving students in discussions about learning outcomes can be empowering and afford them agency in their learning experience. Students can be more than just the subjects of our studies; they can also be collaborators and co-creators in the learning environment.

            Second, consider equity in the creation and selection of assessments and assignments. Assessment method selection, for example, should center student learning and not focus on what might be the easiest or readily available. Look to use multiple methods of evaluation to allow for multiple ways of student learning to count. Consider approaches which allow for breadth and depth of knowledge and experiences across many different types of learners. As with the discussion around course and program learning outcomes, create space and invite students as collaborators in this process.

            Finally, when approaching reporting and translating data to information, be mindful of the positionality and biases we all possess. Look to collaborate and involve multiple perspectives – especially ones with different positionality than yours – to challenge assumptions. Look to make data disaggregation a routine and necessary practice to understand student learning in context of identities and experiences. In addition, data do not tell the full story, so it is important that we also talk to students and learn directly from them about their experiences, successes, and challenges.

Advancing Equity in Practice

At National Louis University (NLU), there have been intentional efforts to embrace and infuse equitable considerations as part of our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The university created an undergraduate college with equity in mind from operational considerations such as financial aid packages to a comprehensive student support model with ambitious attainment goals. NLU’s process to review and enhance institutional learning outcomes centered students in making sure language was understandable and clear for what learning and competency looked like, as well as making it easier to share results and feedback with students regarding their academic progress. Even during the pandemic, NLU focused on access and reinforcing community among its students by leveraging virtual engagement tools to increase student attendance in programs by 300%. And since 1976, we have been offering a variety of credit for prior learning options for undergraduate and graduate students to demonstrate their learning to be recognized as elective or major-specific credit. 

            Keys to NLU’s success in this space have been following tenets of practice similar to what was mentioned in this article. The university strives to include diverse perspectives of multiple populations among faculty, staff, and students of various identities and backgrounds. It is important to encourage all employees to hold equity as a lens for which to view their work and being data-informed with respect to student success and performance not just at the aggregate level, but disaggregating for insights by identity, modality, and location. With multiple faculty and staff having been featured in their fields as presenters and authors of books, articles, and blogs, NLU also reinforces personal and professional development to challenge biases, educate one another, and best prepare to serve all students according to specific and individual needs.

Call to Action

All of our students matter. But we must acknowledge that structural and systemic barriers have long kept some students at a significant, multi-generational disadvantage in their pursuit of college degrees and other postsecondary credentials. We owe it to our students to dig deeper than treating the student body as a single group where a one-size-fits-all solution for support is going to work. Data is being collected and we know inequities exist with respect to student learning, so we should all be prioritizing trying to remove barriers and best support student learning. Individual actions, personal and professional – no matter how small – can bring about change and betterment for students. Think hard about how your positionality and influence to use the information presented here can set goals and actions you can work toward for betterment of all.

In addition, if you’re looking for ideas on how to begin or expand your use of CPL, I encourage you to visit In view of CPL’s untapped potential to shorten the distance standing between adult learners and their life goals, CAEL has launched a national campaign to increase its awareness and usage. The campaign features free resources institutions can use to maximize CPL’s benefits. After all, CPL is rooted in the principals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. With its benefits clearly established, every adult learner we miss in promoting CPL is potentially a missed opportunity to amplify education’s role and responsibility in driving social mobility.

It’s a pleasure for CAEL to share the great work CAEL institutional members like National Louis University is doing for adult learners. You can learn more about the progress the CAEL community practices and champions at our many membership and other events. Interested in sharing your own adult learning success story? Contact

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