Lessons Learned: Building Robust Prior Learning Assessment Structures
EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for postsecondary institutions to support the granting of academic credit through prior learning assessment (PLA)?
Jacqueline Hill (JH): Today’s higher education students are bringing a diversity of experiences, competencies, histories and cultures to our classrooms—more so than previous generations—and this wealth of prior knowledge is often directly applicable to the knowledge base they are seeking to grow through their majors. PLA is an opportunity to harness those capabilities and competencies, and validating prior experience can increase a student’s level of academic success.
Evo: Do you see this as a responsibility mainly at the two-year level or should it be a shared responsibility between two-year and four-year institutions?
JH: It’s a shared responsibility. I don’t think that prior learning assessment is relevant only at an associate degree level or a community college level. It’s applicable in the university setting as well.
Evo: In your experience, what are some of the most common challenges that institutional leaders can face in managing a robust and supportive PLA environment?
JH: The major challenge that I’ve faced in implementing PLA is the sheer subjectivity of prior learning and how it is assessed across institutions. From a community college standpoint, state legislated mandates impact how we can implement PLAs, and these mandates can overlook certain kinds of prior learning while over-emphasizing others. Added to that, of course, is the fact that there are differences across institutions in terms of how they apply credit for prior learning, the methodologies that they accept or deny, as well as the number of credits that can be applied to a particular degree program. These factors are predetermined by the institution, which can make industry standardization a challenge.
Ensuring that prior learning assessment really fits the mission and organizational culture of an institution is important too, because if there’s a disconnect it creates a challenge insofar as trying to implement that process and in being supportive of PLA. This involves establishing a solid infrastructure and gaining faculty buy-in for PLA projects.
Evo: How challenging has it been to ensure that students get the transfer credits they need to stay on track while also ensuring they arrive with the requisite knowledge to succeed?
JH: This has definitely been a challenge. We offer the 2+2 Path at Miami Dade, where students start their education at a community college then transfer their credits to a four-year college or university to complete their degree. We also offer baccalaureate degrees but when students are transferring, the transferability of credits is also a consideration. That’s why it’s so important that, when prior learning documentation is reviewed, we are ensuring that the competencies of that credit are being evaluated and validated through credentialed faculties to ensure that the student has the knowledge they need to progress forward.
Evo: You mentioned a number of diverse challenges related to PLA, ranging from making sure that students are declaring and understand their pathways, to getting faculty buy-in. How have you overcome these obstacles in the past?
JH: One way of overcoming obstacles is by building consensus and awareness of PLA throughout an institution. For many institutions, credit for prior learning represents a significant departure from how students have historically been awarded credit, so you have to get buy-in from the administration, leadership, and most critically, from faculty. As the ones validating prior learning experiences and evaluating whether those experiences are credit-worthy—as the ones establishing the PLA system, in effect—faculty is critically important in building awareness and gaining buy-in from leadership and support teams.
The second way is to ensure that you’ve got a concrete process for PLA in mind from the outset. If you’re not implementing institutional practices and policies for PLA from the start, it creates inconsistencies that render the entire system vulnerable.
Evo: Given the kind of work it takes to support a robust PLA environment, what benefits does the college itself gain from making PLA available to students?
JH: The takeaway for colleges is that PLA leads to an increased progression rate, which gives students access to information and impacts enrollment. In addition, PLA can influence our student completion and retention rates.
Often, when students are awarded prior learning credit, that gives them the initiative to move forward in their academic journey or career pathways. In this, PLA acts as a recruitment tool: it provides the incentive for a student to pursue higher academic credentials, whether in a certificate program, an associate’s degree or a baccalaureate degree.
Another gain from the institutional standpoint is enrollment. If we can find a way to award adult learners credit for their substantial work experience, then that’s an incentive for them to enroll at our institution.
Prior learning assessment also helps with our completion rate, because students can apply the credits they’ve earned through prior learning to degree completion. In the same vein, it supports retention: at Miami Dade, students can earn up to 45 credit hours through PLA. With this, we’re giving students a reason to stay beyond one or two courses because, with the knowledge they’ve brought from their own experiences, they’re closer to their degree completion than they may have thought.
Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about what it takes to create a robust PLA support system within an institution?
JH: An institution is more than likely to be successful at prior learning if they’ve developed a strong PLA infrastructure. If an institution can make credit for prior learning an integral part of its mission or strategic goal, which involves incentivizing faculty to support the PLA initiative and developing policies and procedures that are transparent to students and faculty alike, it’s more likely to succeed.
Finally, keep tabs on how the program progresses. By providing a continuous analysis of the enrollment, persistence and completion of those students who have earned credit for prior learning, institutions can really shed light on how to create a positive PLA environment with great outcomes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Administrator
Author Perspective: Community College